Robert Gates has now been serving as Secretary of Defense for well over three years, and to say the job has been stressful is something of an understatement. Gates and his staff need a rest. Having accomplished the most important goal of his tenure — averting U.S. defeat in Iraq — Secretary Gates has to be thinking about getting out. And what better time to go than after this year’s midterm elections? That’s when predecessor Donald Rumsfeld elected to depart, and unlike Rumsfeld’s timely retreat, Gates can look forward to the accolades of a grateful public. If he stays too long, the public appreciation of what he has achieved might wane.
But then what? Whoever follows Gates — John Hamre, Leon Panetta, Richard Danzig — will lack the unique leverage over national security policy he has been able to wield. That leverage was based in equal measures on his success in Iraq, the economic distractions of a new administration, and the shrewd calculation of the Obama White House that it would make more sense to hold over respected Republican appointees at the Pentagon than have a thorough housecleaning. The quid pro quo Gates demanded for staying was that he have a relatively free hand in shaping defense policy, which hardly mattered to the White House given the domestic challenges it was facing and the evidence of progress in Iraq. But whoever follows Gates cannot reasonably expect to get the same deal.
President Obama has benefited hugely from having Gates in charge. Potential critics of Democratic defense policies have been disarmed by the surprisingly “centrist” positions the president has embraced on issues like nuclear arms control and the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Who could have imagined two years ago that candidate Obama would propose to spend even more on the military than Mr. Bush when the new administration drafted its first defense budget? Obama’s aides can rightly say that they are doing precisely what they promised on the campaign trail, but we all know what the Democratic Party’s track record has been in recent times when it comes to military spending. If Obama had defaulted to typical Democratic priorities, we would be well into a pronounced downturn in defense outlays by this point.
But much of the administration’s seeming moderation may be traceable to the fact that Robert Gates was running the Pentagon. The nation is still piling up new debt at the staggering pace of $4 billion per day, and the Democratic base still has a host of costly domestic initiatives it wants to pursue. So once the calming influence of Gates is gone, it’s a safe bet that defense spending will start heading down unless some huge new threat materializes unexpectedly. In fact, Gates has already begun the downturn for weapons makers with his list of program cuts last April; by his calculation, the cuts took over $300 billion in future weapons outlays out of Pentagon spending plans. This week is bracketed by Gates pronouncements on Monday and Saturday pointing to future pressure on Navy and Marine weapons programs, especially programs associated with amphibious warfare. Those pronouncements may reflect no more than the difficult fiscal circumstances facing the government, but don’t expect whoever follows Gates to do as good a job as he has of protecting military spending from White House budget cutters.
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