Former Defense Secretary Questions Party’s War Planes

Former defense secretary Robert Gates delivers a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, June 24, 2010
Former defense secretary Robert Gates delivers a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington DC, June 24, 2010 (DoD)

Former defense secretary Robert Gates criticized the war plans of his own party’s presidential candidates on Sunday when he argued that putting tens of thousands of American troops in Syria is “not a near-term solution” to defeating the Islamic State militant group there.

“It would take months and months, even if you decided you wanted to do it, to put the logistics in place, get the troops trained and so on,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press.

Gates, a Republican who served under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, did not single out any one candidate for criticism. But nearly all the Republicans seeking to replace Obama in 2016 have called for more expansive military action against the fanatical Islamist group that claimed responsibility for killing more than 130 people in terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month. Read more “Former Defense Secretary Questions Party’s War Planes”

Former Defense Chief Calls for Tougher Action Against Russia

It has been nearly a month since Russian president Vladimir Putin, in response to the overthrow of Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich, ordered thousands of Russian soldiers into the Crimean. Seemingly caught off guard by Putin’s moves, which came despite American intelligence assessments that he would not enter into Ukraine by force, the Obama Administration has been forced to react to the situation largely on the fly.

Republican lawmakers in Washington DC have attempted to use the crisis in Ukraine to bolster their narrative of Barack Obama as a president who is unable to anticipate events or demonstrate strong leadership during times of crisis and unwilling to send a visible message to America’s adversaries that bad behavior will be met with stern consequences. The government, assisted by Democratic Party allies, has fought back against such accusations. And, despite poor approval ratings and concern in Democratic circles that Republicans could pick up more seats in the congressional elections this fall, President Obama has brushed aside criticisms as partisan and contrary to the facts.

But when a former cabinet official starts to question the president’s policy, the criticism seems less partisan and more substantive. Read more “Former Defense Chief Calls for Tougher Action Against Russia”

Inevitable Cuts Undermine American-British Partnership

Robert Gates served both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as America’s defense secretary. He is a man well versed in defense, considered perhaps even the best Pentagon chief since 1945. Clearly then, here is a man worth listening to when he says that defense spending cuts, taken by the British government, undermine the United Kingdom’s ability to be, in his words, a “full partner” of the United States’.

He did not say, however, that the relationship between the two countries was at an end, nor that it had even been fundamentally altered, as the BBC’s Jonathan Beale claims. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has pointed out while witnessing some locomotives, his country retains the fourth largest defense expenditure in the world. Nor does it have a constitutional limitation imposed on its use of armed force, such as Japan, or a history of shirking NATO commitments, like France — two other American allies. Read more “Inevitable Cuts Undermine American-British Partnership”

Robert Gates’ Farewell Message

Robert Gates, the man who has effectively led and managed the world’s largest military force for the past four and half years, had a simple message as he stepped back into civilian life — the United States may have the most powerful and gifted military on the planet but that power could lose its luster if future presidents plunge the country into “wars of choice.” In other words, if you find yourself a part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or in the inner corridors of the White House, make sure you learn the lessons of the past before sending American soldiers to fight another war halfway around the world.

For a defense official who served Republican administrations for most of his forty-plus years in government, the message may seem strange. The Republican Party, after all, traditionally prides itself on being “tough” on matters related to national security. Yet Gates’ affiliation with Republicans is also why his words should be taken seriously. After a long and hard decade of never ending combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, the men and women serving the American military are stretched to the breaking point. Gates may not say it out in the open for fear of being chastised but he clearly recognizes that the United States are not as resilient as they used to be.

Throughout his career as defense secretary, Gates was seen as both a problem solver and a “fixer.” A well established character within the American intelligence community with a solid reputation, he was tapped by President George W. Bush to lead the Pentagon in the midst of one of the most tumultuous times in the nation’s history. By the time Gates was nominated to the post in the autumn of 2006, the war that the Bush Administration had gambled most of its credibility on was spiraling out of control. Thousands of Iraqi civilians, Sunni and Shia alike, became the main victims in a barrage of violence from rival militia groups, predatory policemen and militants affiliated with the Al Qaeda brand. While the Bush White House denied it outright numerous times, Iraq was looking more and more like a civil war. Donald Rumsfeld, who led the Pentagon at the time, seemed detached from what was going on.

The situation, both in Iraq and in the Pentagon, needed to change. And it needed to change as soon as possible. Thus after a tough nomination process in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates went into his office and started the difficult work of turning the war around and rebuilding the strength and soft power appeal of the United States. Generals and commanders who were previously safe from reprimands were fired for poor performance while junior officers who were courageous enough to think “outside the box” were awarded promotions in the hopes of spurring a new wave of innovation within the Army and Marine Corps.

Perhaps more significant than anything else, Gates made sure that he was close to the president but not so close as to jeopardize his credibility as impartial and fair to dissenters. President Bush certainly benefited from Gates’ more temperate demeanor as did Barack Obama.

Gates, of course, was not perfect. For one, he was a main reason for President Obama to sidestep Marine Corps General James E. Cartwright as next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Many of the goals that Gates sought to accomplish while at the Defense Department either proved to be too difficult to solve or were left untouched. Although the Pentagon is now starting to find savings in order to cut its $700 billion budget, defense spending is still vastly more than it needs to be at a time when Washington is attempting to cut government spending anywhere it can. Robert Gates also leaves behind three wars — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya — with the one that he is most identified with — Iraq — still plagued by insurgent violence, suicide bombings and assassinations.

Just as Robert Gates came into the Pentagon with a lot on his plate, so too will his replacement, Leon Panetta. The stereotypical Washington insider, Panetta enters the office facing a host of challenges, many of which will take decades to solve. As Gates found out time and again, trying to break through the status quo, whether by cutting the size of the defense budget or decommissioning a missile defense shield, has the affect of stirring resistance from at least someone on Capitol Hill.

One thing is certain, said Gates. If the United States do not find a way to stop embroiling themselves in war for war’s sake, none of these problems will be as serious as the trouble that could pop up in the future.

Gates Warns Against Isolationism After Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is due to retire two weeks from now. The only leftover from the Bush Administration in President Barack Obama’s cabinet reflected on the war in Afghanistan and the future of American armed forces in interviews with Fox News Sunday and CNN’s State of the Union.

A number of American combat forces are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan this summer. Asked how many troops could start coming home, Gates cautioned in an interview with ABC last week that the president’s “judgement call has to be made in a context of a wide variety of issues.”

On Fox this Sunday, Gates reiterated that his job was to present the president with various options and lay out the potential complications that come with them. He refused to mention a specific number however so Chris Wallace asked instead what he thought of the administration’s strategy. “We have had a lot of success over the last fifteen months in Afghanistan,” he said, praising the “surge” initiated by President Obama. “The conditions on the ground are far better than they were a year ago.” The president, he added, would not jeopardize the gains made by the military under his watch. Read more “Gates Warns Against Isolationism After Afghanistan”

Gates Criticizes European Defense Ineptitude

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did not mince words in Europe on Friday where he urged the allies to improve their own defense capability as the United States might no longer be willing to act as the continent’s security guarantor in the near future. “The kind of emotional and historical attachment” to NATO, he said, “is aging out.”

Gates, who is due to retire as defense chief this summer, warned that “future American political leaders — those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me — may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”

For many decades, extravagant American defense spending has compensated for repeated military cutbacks across Western Europe. The explicit American security guarantee embedded in NATO is part of the reason for the European allies to spend far less on defense than is required by treaty; the lack of a credible threat within the European Union being another.

Complains of Europe “free riding” on American power are nothing new but according to Gates, there is a “dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress” to continue to make up for Europe’s lack of an independent defense capacity. Politicians and public alike, he said, are increasingly resistant to spending “precious funds on behalf of nations [that] are apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.”

Whereas during the Cold War, the United States accounted for roughly 50 percent of military spending within NATO, since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, that share has risen to more than 75 percent. In the face of huge deficits, European countries are expected to trim their defense budgets even further. America, too, will have to rein in defense spending. Gates has proposed some $400 billion in cuts over the next decade.

Only five out of 28 NATO member states spend more than the required 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense — Albania, France, Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Britain and France, Europe’s two largest military powers, pushed for the military intervention in Libya but despite their enthusiasm, a quick and powerful American offensive was necessary to clear the ground for the enforcement of a no-fly zone. “NATO’s serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings [were] laid bare by the Libya operation,” according to Gates.

The mightiest military alliance in history is only eleven weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.

The defense secretary reportedly criticized Germany and Poland, which haven’t participated in the mission at all, behind closed doors and urged the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey to step up their role and start conducting airstrikes. He did have praise for Denmark and Norway. The two Scandinavian countries “have provided 12 percent of allied strike aircraft yet have struck about one third of the targets,” he said. “Belgium and Canada are also making major contributions to the strike mission.”

Gates, Petraeus Discuss Winning the Afghan War

Although a summer deadline for the first troop withdrawals from Afghanistan is nearing, the war continues to see heavy fighting in areas where the Taliban have traditionally been strong. The date for a full transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans has been pushed back to 2014 but at home, the struggle is increasingly unpopular.

In Kabul, Afghanistan, ABC News’ Diane Sawyer asked two of America’s top military commanders whether the war was being won. “We’re making progress,” said General David Petraeus who is leading the multinational force in the country. “We’re really loathed to use this very loaded term of winning or losing,” he explained but “the momentum has changed.”

As Afghanistan braces for a violent fighting season, the general hasn’t made his recommendations for a drawdown in troop levels yet. Close to 100,000 American soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan and Petraeus likes to keep as many as possible for as long as he can. Read more “Gates, Petraeus Discuss Winning the Afghan War”

Reining in American Defense Spending

Defense spending has been largely absent from the budget battle being waged in Washington despite a projected $1.6 trillion shortfall this year. Except for a handful of liberal and libertarian lawmakers, few in Congress have dared raise the possibility of reining in the military’s spending spree.

With terrorist leader Osama bin Laden killed and American combat forces preparing to withdraw from both Afghanistan and Iraq, a reduction in defense expenditures is likely in any event. Since September 11, 2001, military spending has increased by nearly 7 percent a year, up from $291 billion ten years ago to some $700 billion today.

If operations in Afghanistan and Iraq came to an end, total defense outlays would be reduced by roughly one fifth. The Pentagon would still be spending hundreds of billions of dollars on pay and benefits and housing for personnel as well as operations, maintenance and procurement though. Read more “Reining in American Defense Spending”

CIA Director to Succeed Robert Gates

President Barack Obama is expected to nominate intelligence director Leon Panetta to succeed Robert Gates as defense secretary when he resigns this summer. General David Petraeus, currently the commander of American and ISAF forces in Afghanistan, would replace Panetta as head of the CIA.

Panetta, a former congressman and White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, became director of the Central Intelligence Agency in February 2009. As a surprise candidate for the position, Panetta managed to overcome opposition from senior lawmakers who questioned his lack of intelligence experience. At age 72, he would be the oldest person to take the helm of the Pentagon.

His experience working with a Republican Congress during the Clinton years could serve him well as the opposition controls the House of Representatives and is deeply skeptical of cutting defense spending as the president has suggested.

Gates, who replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Defense Department during the Bush Administration, never planned to sit out the full term of Barack Obama’s first cabinet.

During his tenure, Gates attempted to reduce the growth of defense spending, stating, more than a year ago, that if his department couldn’t “figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.” Congressmen have nevertheless hesitated to scrap expensive defense projects, especially if they are developed in their districts or states.

In what was something of a farewell address last March, Gates laid out his vision on the future of the American military, professing that “in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services,” the focus should be on preparing for naval and air engagements.

The strategic rationale for swift moving expeditionary forces, be they army or marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response or stability or security force assistance missions.

“But,” Gates added, “as the prospects for another head on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size and cost of its heavy formations to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make policy and set budgets.”

At the same time, Gates acknowledges that the need for a counterinsurgency capacity remained, “to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly — and controversial — large-scale American military intervention.” It is why he worked to better equip the US Army and Marine Corps to make them more agile and flexible, sometimes at the expense of big and expensive air force and navy pet projects.

As the United States remain involved in two ground wars in Asia and the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, Panetta, a Democrat, will be hard pressed to convince conservative lawmakers to make Gates’ vision for a smaller and cheaper army come true. Donald Rumsfeld tried to transform the military into a leaner fighting force but even with his own party in the majority for six years, he found it difficult to implement big reforms.

The need for spending restraint is certainly real. In order to mend a record $1.6 trillion deficit, Republicans have proposed controversial reforms to health support programs but no defense cuts. President Obama favors a “balanced” approach that includes tax increases and modest savings in the national-security budget. “We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness,” he said earlier this month, “but we’re going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world.”

Gates identified some $400 billion in unnecessary defense spending but warned last year that “tough economic times or the winding down of a military campaign” should not lead to “steep and unwise reductions in defense.” It will be up to Panetta to argue that steeper spending reductions aren’t in fact unwise at all.

Has Gates Given Up on Counterinsurgency?

Any future American defense secretary recommending large-scale deployment of ground forces in Africa or Asia “should have his head examined,” Robert Gates told an audience of West Point cadets on Friday. Instead, they should brace for an era of air and sea wars.

The remark has been readily interpreted as a warning to future administrations not to engage in counterinsurgency operations as have been waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another line from the defense secretary’s speech would seem to suggest as much:

By no means am I suggesting that the army will, or should, turn into a Victorian nation building constabulary, designed to chase guerrillas, build schools or sip tea.

Citing those particular quotes would be missing the point however as Gates’ main argument was that the United States Army will likely end up in a supportive role to the air force and navy as those engage in high end expeditionary operations. Read more “Has Gates Given Up on Counterinsurgency?”