Nearly five years ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat before a Senate panel and candidly admitted that the United States wasn’t winning the war in Iraq. During a surprise visit to the country that April, Gates recalled that a firefight had been raging behind him when he gave his first press conference in Iraq in late 2006. “Things were not going well here,” Gates told the crowd of American servicemen and -women gathered at one of the last U.S. bases in the country, speaking of that earlier visit. “It was a very tough time.”
Times have changed, both for Gates and for Iraq. The country has a fragile but functional central government that took power after democratic elections last year. Its security forces have been growing steadily in both quantity and quality, and they should be capable of policing the country when most of the remaining U.S. troops leave later this year. Militants still carry out the occasional bombing or ambush, but Iraq’s once-constant bloodshed has declined by more than 80 percent.
Gates is preparing to step down this summer as one of the most popular and well-respected Defense secretaries in U.S. history. The Bush administration holdover is credited with salvaging the Iraq mission, scrapping an array of costly and unproven weapons programs, and restoring a much-needed sense of accountability to the Pentagon by firing scores of generals and additional senior officers for poor performance and other shortcomings. He has enjoyed strong support from GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, making him an effective proxy for the Obama administration as it worked to sell controversial actions such as the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays serving in the military. And, most recently, Gates announced plans to shave $78 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next five years, helping the White House rebuff Republicans’ accusations that the cuts would weaken American national security.
With Gates’s departure drawing closer, official Washington is buzzing about who will succeed him. Senior Pentagon and White House officials believe that the front-runners are CIA Director Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff; and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a onetime governor of Mississippi and ambassador to Saudi Arabia who enjoys a close relationship with President Obama.
But no matter who gets the nod, Gates won’t be much of a model. He was a wartime Pentagon chief who spent his first years bringing Iraq back from the brink and his last years trying to do the same in Afghanistan. His successor will have a completely different job. The next Defense secretary will oversee withdrawals from those countries, and in this new era of austerity, he will also have to devote himself to shaving hundreds of billions of dollars from the budget while facing intense White House pressure to do more with less.
Although reductions are always painful, the coming cuts will be particularly difficult because an entire generation of military officers has come of age in an era where lawmakers freely funneled money to the Pentagon and rarely forced its top officials to choose between competing priorities. They got both manpower and high-tech weaponry: The Army and Marine Corps were given money to recruit tens of thousands of troops, while the Air Force and Navy received tens of billions of dollars’ worth of advanced warplanes, next-generation robotic drones, and futuristic ships. The next Defense secretary won’t get to play patron; he’ll have to choose.
The new secretary will be instantly embroiled in internecine conflicts with the individual services, as senior generals work to save cherished programs.
“It’s going to be a dramatically different time at the Pentagon because we’re in a new economic reality,” said retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who stepped down last fall as Obama’s national-security adviser. “It’s still a very dangerous world, but the Department of Defense is not going to be spared the impact of the economic downturn—and the realignment of our priorities—as we reduce the deficit and get our financial house in order.”
Gates never had to do that. He got to fight wars and dispense credibility to his boss. His successor, most likely a Democrat, will not have the nonpartisan bona fides that Gates did, leaving him vulnerable to the congressional attacks that Gates had no problem deflecting. “Whoever is his successor will not start with the same latitude and authority from Congress that Gates has had,” said Rudy DeLeon, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board who was deputy secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration. That difference will mean a much tougher time for the White House and the Pentagon.
Outside, Gates has so much credibility that he could sell something as controversial as the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. Congress won’t be so deferential to his successor on equally controversial questions, such as the role of women in combat. Inside, the new secretary will be instantly embroiled in internecine conflicts with the individual services as senior generals work to save cherished programs from the chopping block. No matter how savvy he is, he will make enemies in the building. Especially if, following the president’s lead, he lobbies for a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan than the uniformed military would prefer. In the end, the next secretary could be as deeply reviled as Gates is loved.
This article appears in the April 23, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.