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 Chief Calls for Tougher Action Against Russia

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010 (DoD/Cherie Cullen)

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.

Robert Gates, one of America’s most seasoned intelligence professionals and the secretary of defense during Obama’s first term, took a swipe at the administration’s response to Putin’s invasion and subsequent annexation of the Crimea in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Unfortunately for President Obama, many of his complaints are roughly in line with what congressional Republicans have been saying for the past month: that his administration needs to be far more aggressive on the sanctions front, more supportive of its Eastern European allies militarily and less Western-centric when it tries to determine what Putin will do next.

“The only way to counter Mr Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the West also to play a strategic long game,” Gates argues. “That means to take actions that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that [Putin’s] worldview and goals — and his means of achieving them — over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia.”

Rather than simply sanctioning Russian officials who may have had direct or indirect involvement in their country’s annexation of the Crimea, Gates urges the United States and its European partners to ramp up the pressure through a package of penalties that would hit at the heart of Russia;s economy. “Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas must be reduced,” he counsels, “and truly meaningful economic sanctions must be imposed, knowing there may be costs to the West as well.”

In addition to diplomatic isolation and sanctions, the United States and NATO must reassure allies along Russia’s periphery that they are protected from any encroachment on their own territory, Gates adds. What the west is currently doing is too lax and, in his words, “anemic.” Putin will not pay attention if the consequences can be brushed aside.

The Obama Administration has prepared the groundwork for much of what Gates is calling for. The president’s most recent executive order, for example, allow the United States to sanction Russia’s defense, energy and financial sectors in the event that Putin decides to mimic his Crimea operation in eastern Ukraine. Although those sanctions have not been executed to full effect, the administration is using them as a trump card, hoping to convince Russia that more military moves inside Ukraine will further isolate it.

For seasoned professionals like Robert Gates, however, simply waiting is an invitation for an even greater regional crisis.

Inevitable Cuts Undermine American-British Partnership

Royal Navy frigate HMS St Albans passes the US Navy aircraft carrier USS George W. Bush during an exercise in the Middle East, September 27, 2011
Royal Navy frigate HMS St Albans passes the US Navy aircraft carrier USS George W. Bush during an exercise in the Middle East, September 27, 2011 (Defence Images)

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.

Over the past twenty years or so, British armed forces have been seen alongside their American counterparts very often — most recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Gates said that the United States have been able to count on a British support and that its military capabilities cover the “full spectrum” of conflict.

However, the economic times being what they are have led to a reduction in British defense spending, even if it still surpasses the minimum required by NATO by 25 percent. Personnel across the three services is being reduced. This has led to a number of senior servicemen warning about “hollowed out” forces, meaning a lack of manpower compared to equipment.

This is a reasonable fear. The war in Afghanistan showed that if the United Kingdom were to undertake more operations of that kind in the future, it would be desirable to have more men under arms, allowing increased rotations of units and so reducing the strain on individual servicemen. Instead, the number of British Army servicemen is being cut by 20,000. The Air Force and Navy, less manpower intensive to begin with, are facing small yet no less significant reductions.

A number of large platform projects have been embarked upon despite these savings, including the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier and the necessary airframes needed to throw off it, all of which cost a lot of money. The Royal Navy will also be receiving more of the new T-45 destroyers. New frigates wll also be on the way, as will a replacement submarine to carry the nuclear deterrent.

Former defense chief General Sir David Richards was skeptical of these investments and said, to anyone who would listen, that what was needed was more helicopters and soldiers. However, he was saying that at a time when the world was just a little different. The campaign in Afghanistan seemed more pressing and years more of tedious counterinsurgency operations looked likely; not, as Libya turned out to be, a return to the 1990s style of coercive air campaigns.

Afghanistan and Iraq taught the United Kingdom as well as the United States the unpopularity of putting soldiers and the required kit into the field for a length of time. It now seems unlikely, evidenced by last year’s parliamentary vote against intervention in Syria, that Britain will soon consider a repeat of the last decade’s wars. David Cameron is not likely to go out of his way to need a force the size of the one that went to Afghanistan under the Union flag. He will most likely be avoiding anything resembling such an undertaking and so will his immediate successors.

So is Gates right? Of course he is. A reduction in military spending and manpower does lead to a reduction in capability. But what does that mean in turn? The British public, for the most part, welcomes a reduction in armed forces rather than hospitals. Many also still resent the form American-British relations took during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The notion that Britain will no longer be “America’s poodle” is a popular one, especially on the left.

Still, a fundamental break is unlikely. Britain continues to at least try to uphold its commitments and, barring Syria, get involved. It will no doubt continue to do so up to and after the regaining of hefty seapower in the form of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier. It still spends 2.5 percent of its annual economic output on defense. The British armed forces’ role has not changed fundamentally since 1945, even if they have less men and equipment. They retain, in theory, a global remit, particularly at sea; involvement with NATO in the defense of Europe; and general support for the main ally, the United States.

Ideally (although depending on one’s view of the armed forces), there wouldn’t be cuts at all but that is politically untenable. Few British voters would accept defense being exempt from cuts when other other departments are forced to make reductions. So while Gates’ concern of a reduced variety of ability in the British forces is accurate, the alternative is not realistic. The order and method of the cuts taken by the government, that is keeping costly and time consuming projects over personnel, will at least give much greater opportunity to regain what is lost than doing it the other way around and avoiding investment in long life but high cost assets.

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 speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010 (DoD/Cherie Cullen)

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.

When asked if he was concerned about the growing isolationism in his own party, Gates said that he worried about politicians who see defense and American engagements around the world as a way to reduce the nation’s fiscal woes. “I believe that misstates the problem,” he said before pointing out that as a share of gross domestic product, defense spending is at its lowest since before World War II except for a brief spike in the 1990s. He urged skeptics of the war to wonder, “what’s the cost of failure?”

On CNN, Gates explained that “failure is a huge challenge for the United States” and could have “costs of its own that will linger with us for a longer time as was the case in Vietnam.” The parallel with the Vietnam War is appropriate, he told Newsweek. “That is we came to the right strategy and the right resources very late in the game. President Obama, I think, got the right strategy and the right resources for Afghanistan — but eight years in.”

“We abandoned Afghanistan once and we paid a very heavy price for it in the attacks of 9/11,” Republican senator John McCain said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “For us to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban and radical Islamic extremists, I think would be repeating mistakes we made before.”

Interventionists like McCain seem to be in the minority among Republicans however. There is division within the party not just over the intervention in Libya but American involvement in Afghanistan as well. Centrist presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John Huntsman have both suggested to withdraw from the country altogether; something Senator McCain, himself a former presidential contender, warned against.

“I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today?” he pondered, arguing that isolationism is a stark departure from traditional conservative foreign policy. “That is not the Republican Party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people for all over the world.”

Gates agreed that “Congress is all over the place” and “the Republicans are a perfect example. I mean, you’ve got the budget hawks and then you’ve got the defense hawks within the same party. And so I think there is no consensus on a role in the world.”

“I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower,” the former intelligence director reminisced in Newsweek, “and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position. It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.”

More than half of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan has not been worth fighting according to a poll recently conducted for ABC News and The Washington Post. 73 percent of respondents said that the United States should withdraw a substantial number of troops from the country this summer.

Gates acknowledged that the American people were tired of war on State of the Union but he stressed that “the United States had a very limited commitment in Afghanistan until well into 2008. And we didn’t have the right strategy and the right resources for this conflict and a lot of resources — those needed to do the job — until the late summer of 2010.”

“We were diverted by Iraq,” the secretary admitted, “and we basically neglected Afghanistan for several years.” The president’s responsibility, he said on Fox News Sunday, “is to look out for the long term national-security interest of the United States. He has to have a longer view.”

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

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David H. Petraeus, commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, meet at Camp Eggers in Kabul, December 7, 2010 (US Navy/Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell)
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David H. Petraeus, commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, meet at Camp Eggers in Kabul, December 7, 2010 (US Navy/Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell)

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.

Under Petraeus’ leadership, American combat operations in Afghanistan have mounted in number and intensity. Night raids increased spectacularly during the second half of last year while heavy armor was deployed to break the insurgency.

Although the “surge” of some 30,000 troops initiated last year allowed the United States and their allies in Afghanistan to reclaim territory in the south, the Taliban remain active in the Pashtun dominated Helmand and Kandahar Provinces while support is flowing in from tribal areas in neighboring Pakistan.

In its most recent assessment of the war, the administration admitted that tactical victories achieved in Afghanistan remain “fragile and reversible.” The existence of sanctuaries across the border with Pakistan in particular is hampering progress as they allow insurgents to regroup or simply wait out the Western war effort. According to Gates, the situation in Pakistan is changing though. “I think we have to work our way through that,” he said.

The Pakistanis have been reluctant to open another front against the extremists but may be inclined to expand their operations in North Waziristan, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested last week after visiting the country. The Pakistani military denied reports of an imminent full-scale offensive in the region as premature however.

The current strategy in Afghanistan hinges on the ability to transfer security and government responsibilities to a civilian administration that is fraught with nepotism and lacking authority outside the capital of Kabul. The Afghan army that is equipped and trained by Western nations remains largely incapable of operating on its own.

At over $100 billion a year, the war effort is also costly and increasingly unpopular at home. According to a poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post, more than half of Americans believe the war has not been worth fighting. 73 percent of respondents said the United States should withdraw a substantial number of troops from Afghanistan this summer.

Gates cautioned that the “judgement call has to be made in a context of a wide variety of issues.” Although the president has promised a substantial drawdown, Gates framed it as a “modest” one for July.

After pointing out that the war will probably be less expensive next year, the defense secretary urged legislators to wonder, “what’s the cost of failure? We’ve invested a huge amount of money here,” he said, along with many hundreds of lives lost. “Congress is almost always impatient” but it shouldn’t confine its decisionmaking to the short term. “I can say that,” he joked, “since I’m leaving in a few weeks.”

Neither Gates nor Petraeus will be in their current position to see the war through. The defense secretary is slated to be replaced by current intelligence director Leon Panetta who will be succeeded as head of the CIA by General Petraeus later this year.