Will Gates still be there to help Obama plunge ahead or change course?
With the fall elections looming, the defense secretary's plans are already the subject of intense Washington speculation. When he agreed to join Obama's team, Gates thought he might stay for a year. Then came the budget review, in which he was given the leeway to implement many ideas that he'd only talked about under Bush. Then came the Afghanistan review, the results of which would take a while to play out. This summer, he was pushing the budget agenda further, including reforms in weapons contracting (especially the way contractors calculate "overhead," a vaguely defined money magnet that Pentagon gadfly A. Ernest Fitzgerald once called "the dark side of the moon") and drastic cuts in the number of military commands around the world (another Cold War relic), which entail similarly drastic cuts in the number of senior officers commanding and staffing them. Gates's goal is to cut $100 billion over the next five years through these sorts of economies. Aides say that he's "passionate," "revved-up," and "stoked" about the project.
Others, in and out of the Pentagon, are skeptical. Some doubt that renegotiating contracts and scrapping superfluous headquarters will save that much money. They also wonder whether Gates might be going, in one sense, a bridge too far and, in another sense, not far enough.
In the realm of Pentagon politics, it's one thing to slash a few cherished weapons programs. But it's another thing entirely to slash the number of colonels and generals -- which, besides the obvious immediate threat to officers' careers, means fewer promotions for majors and captains, who thus end their service at a lower rank and with less retirement pay. This is the sort of thing that could spark an old-fashioned officers' revolt.
Yet, for all the commotion it might cause, the savings from such a move -- even if they do amount to $20 billion a year -- are small change in a half-trillion-dollar military budget (not counting the cost of the wars). Much bigger savings would come from asking more basic questions: Does the Navy really need 11 aircraft carriers, and does each carrier need the same number of planes and escort ships? Do the Air Force and Navy really need 2,000 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes, as Gates plans to give them (in part as compensation for stopping the F-22)? Does the Army really need 73 brigade combat teams, with all the weapons, support, and personnel that go with them?
To a remarkable degree, the U.S. military still has a Cold War force structure, built around fighter planes, aircraft-carrier task forces, attack submarines, and a large nuclear arsenal. Yet, contrary to some critics in the officer corps, who accuse Gates of shifting the focus entirely away from preparation for big wars to fighting today's small wars, that's one Cold War legacy that Gates does not want to change. He favors substantial increases in the military budget. He favors spending tens of billions of dollars to maintain, and somewhat upgrade, the nuclear arsenal. He opposes any slacking off in America's global military presence.
In this sense, too, Gates is both expressing his genuine views and reflecting the political consensus. He is the secretary of defense; he has to pick his fights. At one point in our interview, he noted that he's not proposing to cut the number of aircraft carriers. When I asked why not, he replied, "I may be bold, but I'm not crazy."
Gates, who turns 67 in September, says he wants to leave the job and retire, this time for good, sometime in 2011. "I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," he said. It might be hard to find a good person to take the job so late, with just one year to go in the president's current term. And, he added, "This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."
He pointed out that he's the 22nd U.S. defense secretary since the position was created in 1947. "If I stay until January 2011," he said, "I will have been in the job longer than all but four of my predecessors. And those four are Robert McNamara, Don Rumsfeld, Cap Weinberger, and Charles E. Wilson." He laughed. All four are famous for having stayed long past their welcome. Two of them, McNamara and Rumsfeld, started out energetic and celebrated before tumbling into the traps of ill-considered wars.
Then again, Gates said much the same thing about not wanting to stick around after 2008. Is his new countdown ticker, set to go off in 2011, another "covert action," as he put it, to discourage Obama from asking him to stay? He certainly doesn't say so. But if the president does ask, Robert Gates has always been the type to say, "Yes."