"Gates Is a Realist."
Only compared with the neocons. Gates's low-key style convinced even discerning analysts to label him a realist. Fareed Zakaria, for example, wrote an August 2010 article lauding a speech Gates had recently given at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas, deeming Gates "a genuine conservative in Eisenhower's tradition."
But Gates's actions suggest he is anything but. Gates self-consciously evoked Ike's efforts to limit security spending and protect the country's economic health, even in the face of the Soviet threat. But Eisenhower followed up by actually cutting defense spending: He fought Democrats' efforts to increase defense spending on the basis of the phony missile gap with the Soviet Union. It is doubtful that Gates would have taken Eisenhower's side in those late 1950s fights. Indeed, he has a long record as an inflator of security threats. In 2009, for example, he claimed that Americans now face greater danger than at any point is his career, suggesting that al Qaeda and its ragtag subsidiaries are more terrifying than the nuclear-armed Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. This kind of strategic hypochondria offends realism.
So have Gates's frequent defenses of the war in Afghanistan. The United States' mission in Afghanistan is a massive state-building effort that involves providing social services, developing infrastructure, reforming agriculture, and promoting women's rights in a country that has rarely known any of the above; this is community organizing, not realpolitik. Lately, Gates has lobbied the Iraqi government and his own colleagues to extend America's foolish adventure in Iraq. The right phrase for these sorts of wars is militarized progressivism. And the word for using Ike's record to sell Barack Obama's defense policies is chutzpah.
By all measures, Gates should have lost any claim to realism with his declarations of support in recent weeks for the humanitarian intervention in Libya. Originally skeptical of the mission, Gates now claims that the United States must participate in the war to support its European allies. But realists know that one has allies for wars, not wars for allies. And true fiscal conservatives understand that trying to run the world is neither conservative nor cheap. It's hubris.