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.
Gates has enormous clout with Obama, who persuaded him to stay on despite his frequent public promises to retire when the Bush administration ended. Gates used to carry around a digital clock showing exactly how much more time he had to put in before he could return to the lakeside house he and his wife built in Washington state, but he threw away the clock when President-elect Obama asked him to stay. Obama quickly formed a tight bond with Gates, a low-key policymaker with a long and varied career at the highest levels of the nation’s national-security bureaucracy. That helped Gates sell the president on last year’s Afghanistan troop surge, a policy supported by the uniformed military but strongly opposed by Vice President Joe Biden and many senior White House aides.
One problem is that, even if Gates’s successor is close to Obama, he probably can’t get the same level of trust as the éminence grise. Another simply has to do with today’s political climate: No matter how connected the next secretary is to the White House, budget-cutting fervor now animates Washington, leaving the Defense Department more vulnerable to White House demands that it cut specific programs and wind down the Afghan war. In what seems like a sign of things to come, even Gates was given only a day’s notice about Obama’s new plan to slice $400 billion in defense-related spending by 2023, a cut that Pentagon officials say would mean reducing the number of troops and abandoning an array of missions.
A bigger challenge for the next secretary, however, will be the constant comparisons with his predecessor. In late 2006, Gates rode in on a surge of goodwill because he was not Donald Rumsfeld, a polarizing figure who had alienated Capitol Hill, the troops, and the public. The next Defense secretary, instead, will succeed a popular, bipartisan hero. “Gates started out as the non-Rumsfeld, and that gave him an immediate advantage,” said Dov Zakheim, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was the Pentagon’s comptroller during the Bush administration. “But to be the non-Gates is not going to be a good thing. He’s going to have to fill the shoes of one of the most effective Defense secretaries we’re ever had.”
The years ahead are likely to look like the years before the Iraq war, when the massive run-up in military spending began. When budgets were tighter, Gates’s predecessors waged constant warfare with the Army and Marine Corps, whose chiefs covertly lobbied lawmakers to preserve specific weapons programs. In one of the most memorable skirmishes, senior Army officials mounted a rearguard effort in 2002 to overturn Rumsfeld’s decision to kill an expensive artillery system called the Crusader. Before congressional hearings on the system, a midlevel Army official faxed key members two pages of talking points warning that ending the Crusader would cost American lives in combat. A furious Rumsfeld told reporters that he had a “minimum of high regard for that kind of behavior” and ordered an investigation that cost the official his job.
Rumsfeld eventually managed to scrap the Crusader (it was so heavy that few Air Force planes could have transported it into combat), but only after spending a good deal of political capital. That fight destroyed Rumsfeld’s relationships with senior generals, including then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, whom the secretary later ousted for dissenting about how many troops the Iraq war might require.
One of a Defense secretary’s most important roles is serving as a mediator between the president he serves and the senior generals he commands. Rumsfeld was widely disliked within the Pentagon because he publicly belittled the generals and frequently disregarded their advice on key issues such as how big a force to send into Iraq. Rumsfeld’s refusal to listen to his top military advisers meant that there weren’t enough American ground troops to secure the country after Saddam Hussein was pushed out of power, a shortcoming that fueled the sectarian tensions and violence that persist there to this day.
The experience of Les Aspin, President Clinton’s first Defense secretary, offers a different sort of cautionary tale for Gates’s successor. Clinton tasked Aspin, a former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, with cutting what he saw as the Pentagon’s bloated Cold War-era budget. Shortly after assuming control of the Pentagon, Aspin devised a plan to let go 375,000 troops and halve the number of forces stationed in Europe as part of a broader push to slash defense spending. The proposal infuriated Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell and other senior officers, who were already uneasy about Aspin’s support for allowing openly gay troops to serve. In-house regard for Aspin sank.
Rumsfeld was disliked because he publicly belittled the generals and frequently disregarded their advice on key issues.
After he rejected Powell’s request to send tanks to Somalia in support of U.S. forces there, Somali fighters killed 18 American soldiers and wounded dozens more. Aspin was widely blamed for failing to protect the troops; he admitted that his decision on tanks had been wrong, and his standing in the Pentagon plummeted even further. Clinton cut him loose in early 1994, after barely a year on the job—one of the shortest tenures ever for a Defense chief. It also didn’t help the relationship between the armed forces and the president, who had feuded with top generals over crises in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo over how much force commanders could use. By 1994, Clinton’s relationship with the troops was so bad that then-Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., said that the president had “better have a bodyguard” if he visited bases in North Carolina.
If anything, the military is even less accustomed to refusal now than it was then. “The past 10 years—when Defense essentially got everything it asked for—they’re gone,” retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser, said in an interview. “The pressure’s going to be severe, and the issue is, can reductions be made in a thoughtful manner, or will it be a ‘you’re going to cut the budget by 10 percent or 20 percent’ kind of meat-ax approach?”
The two men most likely to follow Gates would bring different strengths. Panetta, 72, has earned plaudits from both parties for his stewardship of the CIA, which has used unmanned aerial drones to kill hundreds of Taliban and Qaida militants inside Pakistan. His time overseeing the spy agency has allowed Panetta to develop considerable expertise about Afghanistan—the Obama administration’s top national-security priority—and to build relationships with the Afghan and Pakistani governments. If tapped, Panetta would begin his term as the oldest Defense secretary in American history.
He is also an expert on budgets, which will be a core part of the next secretary’s job: Aside from a turn as White House chief of staff, he was Clinton’s first budget director and, before that, the chair of the House Budget Committee. His budget request for fiscal 2012 was $55 billion for the CIA and the nation’s other civilian intelligence agencies, only a modest increase from the $53 billion spent in fiscal 2010, the most recent year available. Although exact intelligence budgets have historically been classified, America’s spy agencies—like the Pentagon itself—have seen their budgets roughly double since September 11. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, recently told Congress that the CIA and other agencies “all understand that we’re going to be in for some belt-tightening.”
Mabus, the other top contender, doesn’t enjoy Panetta’s high profile in Washington, but the Navy secretary’s career has also prepared him well for the Pentagon’s changing mission. His first elected position was Mississippi state auditor, a job that he said in an interview with National Journal taught him how to “read balance sheets and follow the money through budgets.” Mississippi was then one of the most corrupt states in the country, and Mabus helped the FBI amass evidence of local officials’ financial improprieties, eventually culminating in the arrests of 57 county supervisors in a series of raids called Operation Pretense. That investigation catapulted Mabus into the governor’s office in 1988, when he was just 39. After that, he was Clinton’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, an early endorser of Obama, and, even as Navy secretary, the head of the administration’s Gulf Coast restoration efforts.
Mabus has also had some crucial on-the-job training in recent years: He scrapped the Marines’ expeditionary fighting vehicle and lowered the price of the Navy’s littoral combat ship program by forcing the two companies bidding for the contract to compete against each other even beyond the normal contracting process. Mabus said that the result will save $2.9 billion over the next five years and allow the service to buy 20 ships, one more than had been planned. “We’re being very careful with how we spend money and how we build ships,” Mabus said in an interview. “You have to make some hard choices.”
White House officials say they haven’t begun interviewing possible successors yet, but senior military and Defense officials expect the formal selection process to get under way within weeks. Panetta and Mabus declined to comment about whether they’ve spoken to the White House about the job. Choosing his words carefully, Mabus told National Journal, “I read the same periodicals you do.”
“Can reductions be made in a thoughtful manner, or will it be a ‘you’re going to cut the budget by 10 or 20 percent’ kind of meat-ax approach?” —Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft
The budget won’t be all that the next secretary has to worry about. Gates is heavily invested in the U.S. war strategy for Afghanistan, which he—more than any other administration official—is responsible for crafting over the past two years. In summer 2009, he abruptly fired Gen. David McKiernan, then the top American commander in Afghanistan, and appointed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a counterinsurgency specialist who had spent decades in the military’s elite Special Operations community. (McChrystal was later relieved for making disparaging comments about senior Obama administration officials and replaced by Gen. David Petraeus.) Six months later, Gates helped persuade Obama to send 30,000 U.S. reinforcements into Afghanistan, pushing American troop levels there to record highs. The secretary has since consistently argued that the retooled war strategy is showing results, particularly in the former Taliban strongholds of southern Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Many military officials privately acknowledge that the war is going far worse than Gates has let on, and that the Taliban and its militant allies are using safe havens in Pakistan to train fighters and push into once-quiet areas of northern and western Afghanistan. Gates says simply that it’s too soon to know if the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan is turning the tide, but his generally optimistic attitude toward the war contrasts with his initial candor about the outlook in Iraq when he took office. Last year was the deadliest period of the war for Afghan civilians and coalition troops. The United Nations reported in March that civilian deaths spiked 15 percent, to 2,777, in 2010, with 75 percent of fatalities attributed to the Taliban. This year is off to an even bloodier start, and the Kabul government meanwhile remains deeply unpopular and corrupt.
With the White House already signaling that it wants to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan in July than Petraeus and other military commanders prefer, the next Defense secretary could be forced to reverse Gates’s approach to the war. He would probably also push for a fundamental reevaluation of whether persevering in Afghanistan remains in America’s long-term strategic interest. “We’re overinvested in Afghanistan to the detriment of other security priorities that are out there,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “A new Defense secretary, less invested in the strategy, could help the president in what I think is a necessary rebalancing of the war.” Katulis and others say that dialing back the wars would free up resources to use against al-Qaida’s new bases in countries such as Yemen and Somalia while reducing the strain from more than a decade of grueling warfare.
A gradual American withdrawal from Afghanistan could also make it easier for the United States to adopt a more aggressive policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, which many Pentagon officials see as the biggest potential threat to global stability. Gates maintains that a military strike on Iran could further destabilize a chaotic region, boosting the public standing of Tehran’s hard-line government and enmeshing the U.S. in a third war in a Muslim nation. But with U.N. sanctions doing little to slow Iran’s push for a nuclear weapon, the next Defense chief may have a different take.
Not all of the choices facing the next Defense secretary will be voluntary. In early 2001, Rumsfeld told the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the Bush administration’s primary national-security priority was missile defense, Jones, then the Marine Corps commandant, recalled. A few months later, Rumsfeld summoned hundreds of military and civilian officials to a Pentagon auditorium and warned them that he would soon take immediate steps to combat an “adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America.”
Rumsfeld was referring to the Pentagon’s bloated internal bureaucracy, which he had spent the year publicly denigrating. His timing was all wrong, however: It was September 10, 2001. The following day, hijacked airplanes smashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, killing more than 3,000 people and triggering a massive expansion of the very bureaucracy that Rumsfeld had so badly wanted to trim.
A decade later, Rumsfeld’s perspective is again becoming the conventional wisdom. Barring another major terrorist attack or other game-changer, the Defense budget is set to come down sharply in the years ahead. The next secretary may not share Rumsfeld’s acerbic personality, but he is likely to find himself waging the same battles—against skeptical lawmakers and senior military personnel accustomed to protecting their turf from cuts—that cast such a pall over Gates’s predecessor at the helm of the Pentagon.
This article appears in the April 23, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.