Finding an unfavorable eulogy of Robert Gates isn’t easy. It’s as though the Defense Secretary actually died and everyone is afraid to speak ill of the deceased. If Gates isn’t the greatest Pentagon chief in U.S. history, he’s one of the most competent in modern times. A driving, realist, pragmatic and non-partisan force that wasn’t afraid to speak his mind in a land of forked tongues. The Los Angeles Times is one of many news organizations to override past negativity: “At a time when "Washington talk" is synonymous to many Americans with double-speak and empty rhetoric, it was nice to have a straight shooter around.”
Yet to those who see through Gates’s sparkling image, the Secretary came Washington with a Masters in doublespeak and leaves with a PhD.
So blunt is his pride that Gates has tacitly admitted to his own duplicity. At first glance periodic reviews appear a necessary component of successful warfare. Mission drift, theoretically, sets in between periods of static fighting, and arguing against a war review can feel counterintuitive. Although this concept is by no means new, the protracted nature of counterinsurgency inherently creates more time to fill and measure. Yet that innocent shine on the surface is a reflection of evil genius lurking underneath in shadow.
Whether by coincidence or design, Gates left his position as president of Texas A&M and returned to Washington in early 2006. Having been quoted as saying he, "had nothing to look forward to in D.C. and plenty to look forward to at A&M," Gates’s first order of business was to participate in the Congressional Iraq Study Group. He would then drop out of the panel following November’s mid-term election, freshly nominated by George Bush to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. Combined with his personal theories to minimize opposition to unpopular wars, the experience outlined a formula that Gates immediately employed upon green-lighting Bush’s surge.
The Washington Post reports, “His primary weapon was the Defense Department review. In January 2007, as the first 30,000 surge troops were heading toward Iraq, Gates scheduled a September review to evaluate whether the new war strategy and additional troops were producing tangible progress. He employed the same tactic three years later in Afghanistan when President Obama dispatched 33,000 troops to Afghanistan.”
That war reviews are necessary isn’t a matter of debate to us. The mission and conduct of all wars must be constantly reviewed so as to conform with reality. Reviews do help administrations “determine whether the military is making progress,” and can “help reassure Congress.” Judging solely by Congressional dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, these reviews can also disappoint a wide range of individuals expecting more details. Nor does the existence of a review process guarantee an accurate impression of the war. Most opponents believe that foreign policy-makers will remain clueless regardless of how long they study Afghanistan.
The White House and Pentagon have relied on Obama’s scholarly but “engaged” persona to equate his reviews with success, no questions asked.
Gates speaks in partial truth when explaining the importance of impression management. A vital component of fourth generation warfare (4GW), nearly all U.S. counterinsurgencies have exceeded the popular expectations of time and resources. Mission creep kicks into high gear as dollars burn and the fighting rages without end, and Washington soon finds itself under intense pressure to respond on all fronts - the White House, Pentagon and Congress. Morale weakens, the insurgent's ultimate goal in removing occupying troops.
Gates says of his review system, “They give people a sense that we have actually got our hands on the steering wheel and are not just coasting.” Even if they still are.
The dark side of Gates’s politicking is thus exposed by the self-proclaimed “fly in the shadows.” As the Pentagon conducts ongoing reviews and the White House’s National Security Council meets every month to discuss war policy, his system appears most concerned with another “critical purpose: They put off critics agitating for immediate troop reductions and a major scaling back of U.S. goals. In short, they bought Gates’s commanders some precious time.”
“I have consciously used them for that purpose,” he says matter-of-factly.
More than stalling for time, sticking to an annual cycle allows the Obama administration to avoid explaining its policy in between reviews. A significant amount of drift can occur year to year and before SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout, Afghanistan was starting to turn grim again. A series of high-profile civilian casualties had knocked General David Petraeus into defensive mode over his air-strikes and night raids. Positive Afghan opinion of NATO remained stuck in neutral, while many Afghans opposed to foreign forces saw a less stable battlefield than their Pentagon overlords. The Taliban’s spring counteroffensive had seemingly confident U.S. military officials on edge, and Karzai and Pakistan continued to work their own agenda instead of America’s.
These factors remain unchanged after bin Laden's death. If not for his daring raid, Obama would’ve had little to sell in Afghanistan besides unstable military gains. Perhaps this is why he spent less than 10 minutes explaining his “way forward” to 2015. As Obama hopped from a military base straight into gay marriage, his defense officials had already deployed to outline a time-table that will take shape over the next 18 months - based on annual reviews and international conferences.
Gates left his final mark in more ways than one “compromise” between Obama and Petraeus.
“I do worry about who comes after me,” the outgoing Secretary muses. “When I look back at the people that I think were seminal during my career, people who had bipartisan respect and were regarded as wise men after they left office—guys like George Shultz, Scowcroft, Kissinger. All those people are in their mid-80s, early 90s. Larry Eagleburger, another of that breed and a dear friend of many, many years, has just died. So I’m sort of the youngest who served in multiple administrations. But I don’t see who is coming along behind me, who has that kind of experience, and that worries me.”
Unfortunately his opponents’ brief respite won’t last long with drone-happy Leon Panetta on deck. Reviews will remain an integral tactic of manipulating U.S. expectations and public pressure in Afghanistan. And why would America’s shadow wars end if Gates is simply returning to the shadows?