Commentary by Guy Farmer: We’ll miss Defense Secretary Bob Gates
For the Nevada Appeal
Is recently retired Robert Gates the greatest Defense Secretary ever? That’s the question a nationally syndicated columnist asked last week, and my answer is “probably.” Gates, who retired on Thursday, served presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama for six tumultuous years and has a long and distinguished career in public service.
Gates retired with his reputation intact, no small accomplishment in this era of frivolous Internet gossip and “gotcha” politics. A native of Kansas, Bob Gates became a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst in 1966 before serving as a National Security Council (NSC) staffer under presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Next, he was ex-President Ronald Reagan’s CIA director during the period 1991-93.
President George W. Bush called Gates back into government service in mid-2006, appointing him as Secretary of Defense to replace Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned under duress. President Obama kept Gates on the job when he took office January 2009 even though Gates is a registered Republican.
That’s his biography, but let’s return to the question of whether Gates is the greatest Defense Secretary ever. I think he probably is because he has never let politics get in the way of doing what he thinks is right – putting the national interest ahead of his personal political agenda, whatever that may be. Gates has loyally carried out the defense and national security policies of presidents Bush and Obama while lobbying for important changes at the sprawling Defense Department.
Echoing President Eisenhower’s warning about an increasingly powerful “military – industrial complex,” Gates in 2008 implored Washington “to be modest about what military force can accomplish,” and cautioned against nation-building, which is exactly what we’re still attempting to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates also lamented the seemingly inexorable militarization of American foreign policy. “We cannot kill or capture our way to victory,” he said, arguing that military power should be subordinate to political and economic development. He also emphasized that the State Department should take the lead in U.S. engagement abroad with the military playing a supporting role. What a novel concept!
We’d be in better shape around the world today if presidents Bush and Obama had followed Gates’ timely and wise advice. I recall a speech in which the former Defense Secretary pointed out that the military had more uniformed band members than the entire overseas contingent of State Department Foreign Service officers. No one paid any attention to that speech but it illustrated an ongoing contradiction in the U.S. foreign affairs community – too many soldiers, not enough diplomats.
Early last month Gates told our European allies that NATO had become “a two-tiered alliance” poorly equipped to carry out military missions in Afghanistan and Libya. He praised NATO members who are “willing and able to bear the burdens of their alliance commitments” while condemning those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership without sharing the risks and the costs.
I admire Gates’ straightforward, non-partisan honesty. He’ll be sorely missed at the Pentagon and in Washington.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired diplomat.