Former Human Events editor Jed Babbin has a column today at RCP which is very critical of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Babbin can, of course, speak with authority on defense policy matters — he’s a former Air Force officer who served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration in 1990-1991 — but I have to register a few disagreements here. The whole thing strikes me as a bit off the mark. Let’s unpack why.
Babbin’s overall criticism comes in depicting Gates as a sneaky Washington insider, who devalues the opinions of military professionals in favor of media personalities and politicians. But one man’s clever sneak is another man’s canny operator. I can’t speak to Cincinnatus comparisons, but obviously Gates did retire as DCIA, arguably the most successful analyst in CIA history and a close friend and adviser to Bush 41, wrote his memoir, and seemed happy away from Washington. (Babbin identifies him as “a Baker protégé,” but that is just nonsense — irrespective of their mutual service in the Iraq Study Group, Baker always disliked Gates during their tenure under 41, and they clashed repeatedly on policy matters.) Gates enjoyed his time immensely at Texas A&M, and he certainly didn’t need to take this job to prove anything — in fact, given the climate he entered, it would be more likely that this position would tarnish his legacy. Putting yourself in a hot position, facing a gigantic military and defense policy mess on all fronts, is not a move that usually results in making yourself look good — but Gates took this calculated risk to his reputation confident in his own abilities, as he should be.
Next, Babbin turns his eye toward the DADT issue, where Gates’ policy position has been — as far as I know, unceasingly — that the Defense Department needs a solid review of how a policy change would effect the military going forward. DADT as a longterm policy proposition is unrealistic, but a transition period will almost certainly be dicey, and no one needs that headache interfering with a war effort. (Frankly, those who maintain the policy can be changed in a compressed period tend to be folks who don’t understand soldiers, or perhaps 18-22 year old males in general.) So Gates’ “lukewarm support” of the Congressional vote really ought to be interpreted for what it was: frustration that Congress would engage in such posturing after a review had already been agreed upon.
Gates still serves at the pleasure of the president, and despite their feet-dragging, I’m sure this administration wants to repeal DADT. Gates has worked for seven presidents — and you don’t get to make that kind of claim unless you have common ground toward longterm goals, and keep your opinions to yourself when the politicians have decided something. Reasonable people can disagree about this policy, but we saw what happened with McChrystal (deservedly so), and while there’s a difference between generals and cabinet members, there’s no scenario I could foresee where Gates would openly disagree with the president on DADT that doesn’t end in his resignation during a critical time for troops in the field.
I have no disagreement with Babbin’s point about the Pace nomination, but again, this is a matter of political realities. It was the Bush Administration as a whole, not just Gates, which chose to invest all their efforts in defending Petraeus and the then-unpopular surge campaign — they didn’t want to get in another scrap with Capitol Hill. President Bush judged he didn’t have the capital to fight for Pace, and he went. A shame.
Yet when it comes to Babbin’s complaints on Gates’ approach to the Defense budget, I could not disagree more. The QDR was a reflection of Gates’ views, and his dedication to the war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq: if Gates has to choose between more general officers and F-22s, or MRAPs to protect the troops vs. the DDX program (according to some estimates, now costing over $4 billion per ship), there’s no question which of these things he picks.
Functionally, we live in a time of budget constraints. The idea that “next war-itis” is somehow a good thing belittles the wars we are in now — in fact, it’s Gates devotion to fighting today’s wars that makes him so popular with the military on the ground. Babbin suggests these people hate Gates, viewing him as a courter of Congress and the press — this conflicts, incidentally, with his depiction of Gates’ press secretary Geoff Morrell, surely not the first press representative to yell at a reporter, as “one of the most unpopular Pentagon press secretaries in memory.” (I’m not sure why Babbin would feel confident in making these claims. Did he take a survey?) But this is a key point: while the top tier in the Air Force and the Navy will always want more fighters and ships regardless of need, there are very few people in the upper echelons of leadership who have proven their ability to adapt to today’s conflicts. Many are still in a Cold War mindset, or expecting SECDEFs to operate as such.
That’s why I think it’s significant that the deployed force has the most affection for Gates today. Babbin cannot deny that soldiers on the ground genuinely like, trust, and respect Robert Gates. I happen to think it’s them he cares about the most. And that fact, not Washington whispering or the Cold War era water carriers, will determine the timing of his departure — a time of his own choosing.