Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is scheduled to retire at the end of the month and on the heels of his retirement he has not been shy about continued engagements in Libya and Afghanistan and warning against the dangers of gutting the Pentagon budget.
“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,” Gates told Newsweek. “It didn’t have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time.” Gates continued, “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.”
Despite initially opposing U.S. involvement in Libya during closed-door meetings with the president, Gates has pushed back at critics who claim that U.S. involvement is illegal. In addressing critics on Capitol Hill who have suggested that President Obama is in violation of the War Powers Act, Gates argues that U.S. engagement is limited in scope as to not have violated the letter and intent of the law. “I believe that President Obama has complied with the law consistent in a manner with virtually all of his predecessors,” Gates said while appearing on Fox News. “I don’t think he’s breaking any new ground here.”
Gates defends U.S. engagement on the grounds that soon after the U.S. became involved it handed over operational control to NATO. “When this operation stated…we were at war in Iraq still, we had 50,000 troops in Iraq, we have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, we have 24,000 people engaged in Japanese earthquake relief - we have a number of commitments around the world.” “So, the arrangement and the understanding that the president had with our key allies from the very beginning was the U.S. would come in heavy at the beginning, establish the no-fly zone and then hand off the operation to our allies - and that we would recede into a support role.” Gates continued, “From our standpoint at the Pentagon, we’re involved in a limited kinetic operation…If I’m in Qadhafi’s palace, I suspect I think I’m at war.”
Gates has also not been shy about offering a harsh assessment of those seeking to trim the budget deficit by extracting savings at the Pentagon. Republicans and Democrats alike have argued that Gates has not gone far enough in trimming the nearly trillion-dollar Pentagon budget. “Congress is all over the place…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.” “I worry that people’s whose primary worry and concern is the economy and the deficit will see defense and our engagement around the world as a way to reduce those obligations and that deficits.”
Secretary Gates has served in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He took over the Pentagon reins from a predecessor who had largely soiled relations between the Pentagon and Congress. He is the first to acknowledge the importance of bipartisan support. “When we have been successful in national security and foreign affairs, it has been because there has been bipartisan support…That’s what happened through nine presidencies in the Cold War that led to our success,” Gates told Chris Wallace.
Gates has also not been shy about offering a blunt assessment of NATO. During a speech in Brussels earlier this month Gates offered harsh words about an institution which he views to be at a pivotal moment in its existence. Of particular concern in Gates’ assessment is a lack of political will and military spending which have hampered the effectiveness of NATO as a security institution. “The blunt reality…is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” Gates said while in Brussels.
The strains between Brussels and Washington have become more pronounced since the NATO led military operations began in March over Libya. The United States is the predominate stakeholder in NATO, accounting for approximately three-quarters of military spending by NATO member states. While in the past the U.S. has taken the lead role in military operations, its scaled back role in Libya, which allowed the Europeans to take the lead, has severely hampered the effectiveness of the military operation.
There have been wide reports of ammunition and aircraft shortages and a lack of coordinating a very complicated air campaign against Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s remaining military assets. Additionally, because of ammunition shortages the U.S. has begun to sell NATO the necessary munitions to carry on the campaign. Moreover, because many European countries have neglected to upgrade their fighting capacities, NATO must rely on American military assets like AWACS.
According to a Pentagon memo, the Libyan campaign has cost $664 million and the costs are inevitably going to rise as the campaign drags on. The NATO Libyan campaign has also caused rifts among European countries. Because Spain and Germany sat out the campaign, countries like Norway and Denmark have had to conduct a number of sorties, which have severely strained their defense budgets.
While Gates leaves the Pentagon at a time of uncertainty in Afghanistan and now Libya, he is credited with overseeing the conclusion of the Iraq War. While the U.S. still has roughly 50,000 troops in the country, barring any unforeseen developments like an invasion by Iran, all remaining U.S. troops will be out by next year. In Afghanistan, the development of talks between the Karzai administration, the U.S. and senior Taliban leaders holds some promise that a negotiated settlement will allow a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops beginning this summer. Gates confirmed that the talks are occurring but stressed that they are preliminary at this point. “There’s been outreach on the part of a number of countries, including the United States. I would say that these contacts are very preliminary at this point.”
However, Gates’ overriding concern is that as fiscal austerity dominates the halls of Congress, efforts to trim the Pentagon budget will hamper the effectiveness of the U.S. military. Gates suggests, “The cost of these war is coming down dramatically…So, I think that it’s a mistake, particularly to couch the question in the cost of the war - because my question is what’s the cost of failure? What was the cost of 9/11 because we left Afghanistan?”