The only absolute rule we observe at the Lexington Institute is not to observe the rules we make. Hence, despite the earlier posting that we were taking a break from blogging for the week, events dictate a change in plans. So consider this a non-blog blog.
The event that triggered my decision to come up on the net was the statement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in an interview to Foreign Policy magazine that he intended to resign in 2011. This announcement was not unexpected. It is well known in Washington that Secretary Gates was eager to descend from the pinnacles of power. He had once before tendered his resignation only to be prevailed upon by President Obama to stick it out a little longer. Secretary Gates is familiar enough with the way that things work in Washington to know that if he stays much past the beginning of the New Year he will not give the administration and his successor enough time to adjust to the change. Then he would be forced to remain until after the 2012 presidential election.
Without question, Robert Gates has been the savior of two administrations. Under George Bush he rescued that administration from the chaos of failure in Iraq and a defense strategy overly-invested in ethereal concepts for the transformation of warfare. For Barack Obama he provided a degree of continuity and credibility with respect to the management of two wars that would have otherwise been unattainable. Beyond these achievements, he set in place the ground work for the most significant reshaping of the U.S. military since the 1960s. Under his aegis, the Department of Defense has been forced to deal with the reality that it could no longer rely on metrics, plans, and capabilities built predominantly to fight the Cold War. He cancelled $300 billion worth of programs that he felt were either unnecessary or too fouled up to be saved. Secretary Gates began the process of changing how weapons systems were developed and acquired, making the now-famous remark that it was better to get an 80 percent solution now than to wait years for the 100 percent answer. He also began processes that must be continued by his successor to improve the balance in national security affairs between his department and other cabinet offices such as State, Treasury and Commerce. He also grabbed the thorny nettle of export controls and technology transfer policy, arguing that our need to rely more on friends and allies for collaborative security necessitated sharing with them more of our capabilities and technologies.
Robert Gates’ departure from the Pentagon’s E-ring will not merely leave a hole in that organization but a gaping chasm. There is no one else in the administration with the background and credibility to step into his shoes and, this is particularly important, to continue the great work he began. The other problem with Gates’ decision is that it comes at a time when the deficit-cutting wolves are beginning to howl at DoD’s door. As the Secretary said at his April 9 press conference:
“My greatest worry is that we will do to the defense budget what we have done four times before, and that is slash it in an effort to find some kind of a dividend to put the money someplace else. I think that would be disastrous in the world environment we see today and what we’re likely to see in the years to come. If you were to graph the defense budget going back the last 40 or 50 years, it would look like the EKG of a fibrillating heart. What we need is modest, sustainable growth over a prolonged period of time that allows us to make sensible investment decisions, and not have these giant increases and giant decreases that make efficiency and doing acquisition in a sensible way almost impossible.”
Yet, this outcome is almost sure to happen without Robert Gates at the helm. He alone managed to convince the Obama Administration to cap defense spending at one percent growth a year. He alone had the capability, credibility and ruthlessness needed to force DoD to make some $100 billion in overhead cuts needed as a way of staving off the Congressional wolves. The Obama Administration has failed to cultivate any other national security starts; Secretary of State Clinton comes closest but she has not demonstrated great control over her own department and lacks sufficient experience with defense matters. Unfortunately, with apologies to Louis XIV, it look as though “après Gates, le deluge.”
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