A few weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates trooped up to Capitol Hill to answer questions about the new Pentagon budget.
This is an unseemly spectacle under the best of circumstances. Even reasonable members of Congress have been known to empretzel themselves shamelessly, attempting to defend weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want or need, but which provide jobs for their constituents.
Usually, they win, too. It is just too difficult for a Secretary of Defense to argue against shiny new weapons systems with subcontractors in 46 states, even if they are fantastically over budget and designed to counter a missile threat that the Soviets never perfected 30 years ago.
But this is a different year, and Gates is a different sort of Defense Secretary. He warned the legislators that each decision was “zero sum.”
Any money that went to things he didn’t want would come out of programs necessary to support the troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Undaunted, the legislators pressed their case — especially the Republicans, who seemed convinced, as one said, that the Pentagon budget was part of a nefarious Obama Administration plot: “Fiscal restraint for defense and fiscal largesse for everything else.”
Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona was very concerned about anti-missile defense — a gold-plated pipe dream, if there ever was one — and especially a product dramatically called the Kinetic Energy Interceptor.
To which Gates replied, in a manner so casually dismissive that Franks seemed to shrivel in his seat, “I would just say that the security of the American people and the efficacy of missile defense are not enhanced by continuing to put money into programs ... that are essentially sinkholes for taxpayer dollars.”
And as for that kinetic contraption, it was a “five-year development program, in its 14th year, not a single flight test, little work on the third stage or the kill vehicle, etc., etc., no known launch platform ...”
Rat-a-tat, Gates continued on, in that flat, unassuming Kansas twang that screams: No bull here. The next day, testifying on the Senate side, Gates performed a similar anti-missile evisceration of Senator Jeff Sessions, who responded, “I’d say you were ready for that question.”
After a quietly impressive career in government that has spanned more than 30 mostly Republican years, Robert Gates is suddenly seeming almost, well, charismatic. He reeks authority.
He is, according to several sources, the most respected voice in National Security Council debates. The President is said to love his unadorned manner.
Much of which is attributable to the fact that, in the self-proclaimed twilight of his public career, Gates has emerged as that most exotic of Washington species — the bureaucrat unbound, candid and fearless.
He tells members of Congress what he really thinks about their pet programs. He upends Pentagon priorities, demotes the military-industrial hardware pipeline and promotes the immediate needs of the troops on the front line.
He fires high-ranking subordinates without muss or controversy — an Air Force secretary and chief of staff who didn’t agree with him on the need to end production of the F-22 aircraft; the commandant of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who presided over disgraceful conditions; even a well-respected general like David McKiernan, a conventional-warfare specialist unsuited for the asymmetrical struggle in Afghanistan
When, in a recent conversation, I noted that he seemed gleefully outspoken these days, Gates offered a twinkly smile and said, “What are they going to do, fire me?”
In truth, Gates has been bulletproof ever since George W. Bush lured him from Texas A&M University to replace the disastrous Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.
His mission, Gates said, was “to put Iraq in a better place,” which is a spectacular understatement. Iraq was falling apart in late 2006, and Gates found the Defense Department in paralytic denial.
His nonstop effort to reform the institution — abetted by military rebels who had been cast into the outer darkness by the powers that were — is a great untold story of the war on terrorism.
“If you ever get a chance to interview Donald Rumsfeld,” a retired four-star general told me in 2005, “ask him two questions and see which one lights up his eyes. Ask him what our force posture should be toward China 10 years from now. And then ask him what tactical changes we should make on the ground in Iraq as a result of the last three months of combat. I’ll bet you anything, he gets more excited about China.”
And that was the problem. The Cheney-Rumsfeld axis, which essentially ran national-security policy in the first half of the Bush Administration, was stuck in the Cold War. Rather than fight the enemy we had — the stateless terrorists of al-Qaeda — they sought more conventional enemies.
Attention quickly — too quickly — shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq. And then, once the conventional armored push to Baghdad was completed, the ongoing war effort became — amazingly — a bureaucratic orphan.
“Every time we tried to do something for the troops in the field in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we had to go outside the regular Pentagon bureaucracy to get it done,” Gates recalled.
“For example, there was no institutional home” for figuring out how to combat roadside bombs — but there were plenty of people working on how to counter missiles from North Korea.
On the day after he took over, Gates summoned General David Petraeus — no favorite of Rumsfeld’s — from near exile at Fort Leavenworth, Kans., where he had supervised the writing of a new counter insurgency-warfare manual.
Gates was about to travel to Iraq and wanted to know what the big questions were. “The biggest question is whether we have the right strategic concept to fight the war,” Petraeus told him.
“Instead of concentrating all our efforts on transitioning to Iraqi control, we need to go out and secure the population.”
Gates seems uncomfortable talking about military intellectual stuff like counterinsurgency doctrine.
He insists that logic, not doctrine, has driven everything he has done as Secretary of Defense. The highest priority was supporting the troops. “He resourced the important bureaucratic knife fights,” said one senior Army officer.
“He sided with us on MRAPs [mine-resistant vehicles] and unmanned drones, and increased intelligence, and more helicopters. Those should have been no-brainers, but it had been a real struggle to fund them before Gates.”
A military intelligence officer who was an Iraq specialist told me he had been pleading for more resources throughout the Rumsfeld years: “Iraq was Rumsfeld’s fourth highest priority, after China, North Korea and Iran,” he said.
“But Gates called me in and asked, ‘What do you need?’ And he gave us everything we requested.” Senior combatant commanders say these decisions, no less than the new tactics and increase in troops, helped change the course in Iraq.
And that, according to the Secretary of Defense, is the rationale for his new Pentagon budget; Bush had funded his wars outside the usual budget process, via so-called supplemental appropriations.
Gates has included the war funding in his base budget, “so the programs will be institutionalized and the various services will fight for them.”
He insists that he is not abandoning the fancy hardware and future gizmos that his predecessors and Congress loved. “The things we’ve cut,” he told me, “wouldn’t have been in the budget even if we had $50 billion more to spend. They were programs that simply were unnecessary or weren’t working.”
The negotiating over the budget is likely to turn brutal, although Obama aides insist the President will veto the budget if Gates isn’t satisfied with the result.
And then there are the wars — especially Afghanistan, which Gates has said he hopes will turn around in the next year, but which has obviously become a more difficult enterprise than anticipated.
Gates originally had planned to retire after a year or so, but he seems to have settled in, found a level of comfort and influence with the Obama Democrats that he never quite expected. “I don’t do maintenance,” Gates told me.
“I would never do a job just to sustain the status quo. I like to go into an institution that’s already good and do everything I can to make it better.”
The Pentagon was good at some things, dreadful at others. It is better now, but there are lives at stake every day. Gates keeps track of those killed and wounded on his watch. He knows the exact numbers.
He can get misty talking about the troops he’s met downrange, young people the same age as the carefree students he supervised at Texas A&M, “which makes this all so much harder,” he says.
They — not future fights with China, not last week’s tactics in Afghanistan — light up his eyes. He won’t be abandoning them anytime soon.