Bob Gates Re-Considered

Bob Gates in the eyes of contemporaneous history likely will be seen as a major factor righting the ship of state so damaged by the Warlord’s extemporaneous tragedy. His measured and quiet judgment exerts true institutional and policy change, helping to create conditions for a new beginning with American engagement with the world. He vindicates Zbig’s comprehensive assessment, working to heal U.S. institutions and long term national interests so wantonly destroyed by Cheney and Rumsfeld, aided and abetted by a hapless General Jello, his Benchpresser and the inept Rice.

Gates is to the Stiftung somewhat of a surprise. We did not expect in late 2008 to be writing an encomium like this. Yet here we are.

He is one of those rare Washington persona; they grow in both perspective and judgment while here. And more so away, in his case during his Texas collegiate interregnum.

His contributions to the Iraq Study Group hinted at this. The Warlord’s surprise appointment offered hope for at least ameliorating the regime’s course. That hope appears vindicated. His outwardly unabtrusive influence offsets so much harm caused by so few in such little time. History may record the details. In the meantime, among his most visible achievements are the most recent: a sober, thoughtful 2008 National Defense Strategy (summarized here) and his support for possible meaningful intelligence reform. He truly acted to help right a damaged ship of state despite a command determined to careen radically to starboard.

Frankly, we confess to be in error. We did not expect the latter development. Internally, it is a rare thing to see a Secretary of Defense put the good of the intelligence community ahead of other institutional loyalties and his current department’s historic role in fragmenting management, especially the paper reforms post 9-11 Commission. The new Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) now for the first time has the potential to give the U.S. what it never had: a strategic vision for the overall community. As you Dear Reader already know, DoD controls so much of the institutional assets and hence budget, a DCI’s alleged role in community management was always fictional. He who controls budgets controls the sinews of government. That is one reason every individual at Langley shrunk back to being the actually non-existent role of Director of the CIA rather than actually managing centralized intelligence. Much remains to be gleaned about the genesis and progression of these changes. That mere fact this development exists at all is a truly welcome sign. (We will revisit other details of the reform at a later date).

In the 1980s many at the Agency, Mel Goodman being only the most public and vocal about it, believed Gates was a wholly owned subsidiary of Casey, Inc. The charge? He allegedly ‘cooked the books’ on Soviet estimates to match the political views of Casey and the White House. We followed that matter closely then as you might imagine. Then and now we believed Goodman et al.’s opinions were heartfelt, based on a narrow silo or viewpoint and also overstated. Many so-called non-politicized Soviet analysts inside and outside government initially were skeptical of Gorbachev’s latent radicalism and random policies (Rice being somewhat especially exceptional because she, Janus-like, allowed anyone she was with to believe that she agreed with them).

Gates is not all that progressives and the netroots hope for. In this one has to offer measured praise should one come from that viewpoint. He executes, for example, Administration’s policies (indeed, as a public servant he is not and would not be insubordinate) such as ballistic missile defense in Eastern Europe. This concept is not inherently flawed or even strategically baseless; its core problem is that is being pursued with potentially conflicting strategic interests without calculated prioritization. To wit, clumsy BMD execution combined with uncoordinated and non-prioritized objectives such NATO expansion, ‘lily pad’ insertion of American presence in Central Asia and promotion of ‘democracy’ in the former Soviet Empire/now Russian ‘Near Abroad. Now add Iran and Russian wealth from oil to the mix. As we wrote over at STSOZ 1.0, history may not have seen such an incoherent hegemon in a long time, if ever.

Gates’ most lasting contribution may be helping to extinguish the abuse of ‘war’ as a psychological tool bludgeoning American consciousness into prostration before ‘authority’ exercised in the name of fear. This development is already unfolding on its own. The change promised by Obama is a course correction. The new National Defense Strategy — as anti-Wolfowitzian as one might imagine — returns a proper perspective about American power and America’s role in the world. Sadly, it comes so late in the game. Our ship of state now may be righting itself. Judicious counter flooding, fire control and a measured return to port for repairs — all salutary. How seaworthy she will be even with repairs? How effective (or diminished) her capability and suasion power? All open questions.

One must wish that Obama will surmount his lack of experience, stature in the eyes of the military, and surround himself with advisors of such judgment and quiet skill. As we wrote before, even should Obama win and execute per above, a ship of state and especially her crew below do not turn on a dime. Even one listing or counter flooding. Or perhaps especially so. In this, Gates’ emphatic public statement that he will not serve past this Administration is noteworthy, understandable and somewhat disappointing. A bi-partisan cabinet would be such a healthy sign. We sincerely hope that with Gates’ legacy, achievements and public service, ‘change’ in this context means continued support for a course well set.


  1. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Bob Gates knows when to fold ’em.

    Fred Kaplan’s reportage is perhaps a bit gushing (but then, Gates did give him a pretty good scoop signaling that the Administration should consider replacements before 2012). His biggest impact may be his strong support to ratchet back the overt militarization of U.S. foreign policy viz-a-viz State.

  2. Dr Leo Strauss says


    We remember some of the briefings for this boondogle and the true magnitude is not only what is presented here. Yes, a stealth “battleship” elicits alot of mission scenarios. But as we have written about time and time again, no one is really prepared for the massive procurement scissors crisis that looms tsunami like on the horizon. If you are a regular reader, we’ve been pounding this point for 3-4 years. Here is just one micro example of what is to come and how it is being handled now, essentially ‘off budget.’ Merely one small example.

    The latest item re the the ship cancellation marks another shoe dropping in internecine bureaucratic warfare within the Navy, among the services, contractors and civilian components. Although this new alleged classified issue as reported is not particularly novel in concept — yet perhaps significantly more challenging operationally. The Soviets intended part of their SS-11 ballistic missile deployments to be anti-carrier (albeit nuclear) years and years ago.

    Another part of the issue is the non-diversification of contractor expertise. IOW, if a contractor misses an award cycle for a multi-year/decade platform, one can not reasonably expect its core expertise to remain on the books as overhead for years — the incentives both from DoD and the ‘alleged’ private sector is to award another contract X+1 to maintain some semblance of competitive diversity in the industrial base. This human capital depletion is rarely mentioned and even less rarely understood in its scope and impact on let’s face it, industrial planning. Especially now with a wave of massive cohort retirements.

    And then the Navy as institution and surface component (there are two navies with two distinct cultures, dolphins or submariners and the surface fleet, disparaging called ‘targets’ by the former — and it appears that a submariner called the whistle here) wanted in on what seemed the “Long War”, multi decade “away game” — we hit them there, yada yada yada. The Air Force seemed too suited for that, Global Strike, airlift, etc. Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and now this gave a naval raison d’etre beyond jedi knights flying off of carriers to be in the fight — although again, LCS also had a hugely significant industrial design strategy and imperative behind it.

    There are the significant but largely immediately recognizable issues above. More troubling is we are increasingly designing and engineering ourselves into a corner, a corner that ironically precludes the ability to truly design and build for a military both useful and robust to maintain a presence beyond immediate engagements. Consider what was learned from engineering and building the North Carolina class, the improved South Dakotas class, and ultimately, Iowa class. Each succeeding class marked real lessons learns. Platform and the even more important technological black box on them (which give them truly capability) are not cycled through the process nearly as quickly (even when using chewing gum and string ala COTS technology).

    A truly baroque arsenal/industrial/design infrastructure with a finite and even contracting ecosystem can extend only so far before it dissolves into essentially chaos theory (the real one, not a snark), decay and collapse. We’re not there, yet. But the trajectory is not comforting. The LCS and other experiments at the ‘meta level’ for rapid prototyping attempted to break this practice and reality.

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