Aboard the Pentagon jet on his last foreign trip as secretary of defense, Robert Gates takes a moment to peer across the American horizon—and the view is dire: the U.S. is in danger of losing its supremacy on the global stage, he says.
“I’ve spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position,” he tells NEWSWEEK, seated in a windowless conference room aboard the Boeing E-4B. “It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.”
“To tell you the truth, that’s one of the many reasons it’s time for me to retire, because frankly I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world.”
Such a statement—rather astonishing for the leader of the world’s preeminent fighting force—may open the administration to charges of not believing in American exceptionalism, an opening the GOP is already trying to exploit. But these days Gates is less worried about political crossfire and more focused on the legacy of his own tenure, which bridged the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
He is determined to define his own legacy as Pentagon boss, and eager to push back against one of the more vocal criticisms of his tenure: the belief among many liberals and some con-servative budget hawks that in a time of deep indebtedness, he hasn’t been willing to chop enough of a defense budget bloated by a decade of war.
Don’t expect him to apologize. In Gates’s mind, it’s other political leaders with less experience who are confused.
“Congress is all over the place,” Gates says at one point. “And the Republicans are a perfect example. I mean, you’ve got the budget hawks and then you’ve got the defense hawks within the same party. And so I think there is no consensus on a role in the world.”
Gates, who’ll be succeeded by CIA chief Leon Panetta, wins bipartisan accolades for restoring morale at the Pentagon and, more important, repairing relations with Congress, which had grown distrustful of the Defense Department under Rumsfeld.
Bridging two administrations, Gates gets credit for stabilizing Iraq, though the key decisions that led to success—a surge of troops and the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus to oversee the strategy—predated his arrival.
Petraeus says Gates knew that his real contribution was to buy time in Washington for the strategy to succeed. “ ‘Your battle space is Iraq. My battle space is Washington,’ ” Petraeus recalls Gates telling him.
Gates concedes he was sometimes on the wrong side of an issue. For instance, he was gun-shy about using ground troops to kill Osama bin Laden, arguing that Obama should opt for an airstrike instead. Gates hesitated because he feared a repeat of the bungled 1980 attempt to free American hostages in Iran that killed eight U.S. servicemen. “I was very explicit with the president in one of the discussions,” Gates acknowledges. “I said: ‘Mr. President, I want truth in lending. Because of experience, I may be too cautious, you know.’?”
Obama overruled Gates, siding with those who wanted to deploy the elite Navy SEALs, securing the biggest victory in the 10-year war on terror.
Rather than a transformational figure, a more accurate description for Gates may be “steady hand on the wheel,” says the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Michael Noonan.
“I don’t think [Gates’s] accomplishments merit the sky-high reputation that he enjoys as he leaves office,” former senior CIA analyst Paul Pillar says. “Gates has long had a knack for nurturing his own reputation.”
Pillar recalls that Gates during his CIA days was “always saying, ‘I’m going to whip this organization into shape.’ Anything good that happens, it’s because ‘I’m head of the organization.’ Anything bad can be attributed to ‘institutional resistance.’”
When Gates took over the Pentagon in December 2006, he quickly demonstrated the diplomatic and political acumen he had acquired as he worked his way up through the intelligence community as the first career officer to become CIA director.
Take, for instance, his decision to court Hillary Clinton when she took over as secretary of state in 2009. One of the few senior Bush holdovers in the new Obama administration, Gates was keenly aware of the tensions between the State and Defense departments built up during the war in Iraq. He invited Clinton to his Pentagon office, and the two ate lunch at a table that belonged to Confederate President Jefferson Davis back when he was U.S. secretary of war.
“I just told her, based on my experience, that how well the administration worked would depend a lot on how well she and I got along together,” Gates recalls. “If we got along, the message would go to the entire bureaucracy—not just our own bureaucracies but the rest of government as well. She totally understood.”
Gates made a calculated—and more public—courtship of her entire agency. “I read in the press, and therefore it must be true, that no secretary of defense had ever been quoted as arguing for a bigger budget for State,” Gates boasts now.
The strategy worked. Clinton and Gates try to get together privatelyonce a week to work out differences between their departments, and working with a younger generation, the two have bonded.
“Hillary and I call ourselves the Old Folks Caucus,” Gates quips. “And I must say, it’s the first time in my life I’ve worked for a president who was 20 years younger than I was.”
Gates’s tenure had difficult moments, too. Three years ago, he rejected requests from Gen. David McKiernan, his then top commander in Afghanistan, for more troops, believing there weren’t enough resources. Gates stayed the course until 2009, when he argued for the troop surge that now appears to have stalled the insurgency.
Gates acknowledges a historical similarity to the Vietnam War. “There is one parallel that I think is appropriate, and that is we came to the right strategy and the right resources very late in the game,” Gates says. “President Obama, I think, got the right strategy and the right resources for Afghanistan—but eight years in.”
In Afghanistan, Gates leaves behind a difficult, unfinished piece of business: to convince Congress and war-weary Americans that any major U.S. withdrawal should be delayed by a year—a deferment sought by military commanders on the ground. Likewise, Gates won’t be around for what may be the most delicate aspect of the exit strategy—trying to broker reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan ruling parties aligned with the U.S.
“I’m not saying it’ll all be settled,” says Gates. “I’m just saying you could begin a serious dialogue by the end of the year.” But, he concedes, “asking for another year is hard.”