As U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates takes the latest Asian spin in his endless series of departure laps, he is receiving widespread praise for his reformist language and his stewardship of the Department of Defense (DOD). Although there is certainly much to applaud -- some canceled weapons programs, the search for efficiencies, and a large volume of persuasive rhetoric -- Gates's real legacy is one of deferred discipline.
In reality, Gates is leaving behind a large agenda of seriously unfinished business. He has been a reluctant disciplinarian at DOD. As he himself put it in a June 1 interview with Politico: "I think one of the reasons it's probably time for me to leave is that sometimes too much experience can get in the way, and you can get too cautious.… It may … be making me more cautious than I ought to be."
Gates's instinct for reformist rhetoric but deferred discipline at the Pentagon will leave incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with 10 serious challenges:
1. MISSION CREEP
Gates allowed "mission creep" to infect the services, particularly the ground forces. Rather than use last year's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) to set clear mission priorities, he signed off on an expansion of defense missions, all of which were given equal priority.
Counterinsurgency (COIN), nation-building, counterterrorism operations, and stabilization and reconstruction are right up there with conventional deterrence, nuclear deterrence, forward presence, and humanitarian operations. They are all equal, and the stated intention is to reduce risks in all of them to as close to zero as possible.
Despite the secretary's disdain for alternative defense proposals (he called them "math, not strategy"), this unlimited agenda of missions does not constitute a strategy. It is a grocery list that justifies ever-expanding, global U.S. military engagement and, of course, significantly more resources than the country can ever afford.
As he leaves, Gates has called for a review of the strategy, but the shopping list has not changed. The new review uses the same QDR framework and is being carried out by the same team that produced the first flawed version. Expect nothing revolutionary from this review. It will take a complete relook by the new secretary to impose real priorities, such as asking where the next big conventional war is to be fought (hard to find) and why the less-than-successful exercises in Iraq and Afghanistan should justify some kind of global counterinsurgency mission for U.S. forces.
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