Robert Gates: Mystery Man

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is highly regarded by members of both political parties.  He has served in Republican and Democratic administrations (he succeeded Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in 2006 during the George W. Bush administration), and he is not a controversial figure despite his support of controversial policies.  He reportedly is more respected and has more clout at the Pentagon than many of his predecessors (his nickname there is “the Godfather”).  He is considered a moderate who is somewhere between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden on the hawk-dove spectrum.

Yet it is unclear exactly what Mr. Gates’ philosophy is when it comes to key defense policies.  During the Bush administration, he supported the troop surge in Iraq and the decision to build missile defense sites in Eastern Europe.  But now that President Obama is in office, Mr. Gates is wary of sending more soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan, and he has advocated a major alteration in America’s missile defense strategy.  The Bush missile defense system in Eastern Europe was aimed against potential intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from Iran, but the new system will be based at sea (and possibly in Turkey) and will be designed as a shield against short-and-medium-range missiles that Iran is developing.

What explains Mr. Gates’ shifts in opinion?  Is he is a pragmatist who believes that situations have changed and therefore policies must change?  Or is he a strategic chameleon who simply reinforces the views that the president already holds?  For example, President Bush was inclined to increase troop levels in Iraq, but President Obama (who was against the troop surge in Iraq) is hesitant to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, and Mr. Gates has seemingly shared both opinions which are contradictory in terms of what he believes the size of America’s footprint in foreign countries should be.  Does he believe that the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan are fundamentally different?  Or has he merely been mirroring two different presidents?

Mr. Gates has not been a flip-flopper across the board.  He has been consistent when it comes to the force mix of the military.  He has put a greater emphasis on small-wars and counterinsurgency capabilities vis-a-vis large-scale conventional warfare capabilities ever since he took the job of defense secretary.  And he has advocated greater civilian involvement in nation-building efforts throughout his tenure.

I am not anti-Gates, nor am I trying to denigrate him regarding specific policies.  Perhaps he is a very pragmatic man who is not bound by rigid philosophical beliefs, which is a valuable trait in a defense secretary.  But it would be interesting and helpful to know if he has a vision for the long-term development of the military given the importance of his position in that regard.

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