Today, after a “long goodbye,” President Barack Obama finally sent Robert Gates into the sunset. Checking off Washington’s established list of accolades, the President praised his former Defense Secretary for leading the fight for “wounded warriors” and against wasteful spending. He also thanked Gates for rescuing him from Afghanistan and Iraq, where the administration “ended our combat mission and are responsibly ending that war.”
Another predictable speech from Obama, in other words, on a day that three more U.S. troops died in an Iraqi combat situation.
Obviously the White House wasn’t about to challenge a status quo that has cocooned the former Defense Secretary in glory. Polishing his legacy was the mission objective. Hailing Gates as “a humble American patriot; a man of common sense and decency; quite simply, one of our nation’s finest public servants,” Obama told Gates that he’s, “not only one of the longest-serving Secretaries of Defense in American history, but it is also clear that you’ve been one of the best.”
We wouldn’t have been surprised if Obama praised Gates for his policy in Yemen, where he openly admitted to having none. Thus we cannot be surprised, even if his words delivered a momentary shock, when Obama told the next generation of American leaders to be like Robert Gates.
“So today we not only pay tribute to a remarkable public servant; we celebrate the principles for which he served and for which our nation stands. I believe the life of Bob Gates is a lesson, especially to young Americans, a lesson that public service is an honorable calling; that we can pass our country, better and stronger, to those who follow.”
Compiling an accurate image of Gates isn’t a safe task. The vast distortion field created by Washington establishment and U.S. media has left many Americans believing Gates is everything they say: a realist, bi-partisan, humble. His legitimate campaign for wounded veterans has created an impression of good and sensitive governance, and his crusade against Pentagon spending won him wide support within the Democratic party. He supposedly oversaw two successful surges and withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and realigned U.S. foreign policy from the Middle East to China and the “multi-polar world” at large.
However Gates’s touch is far from golden once the government and media’s blinders are removed. In seeking to extend U.S. force levels in Iraq past 2011, Gates has already set the stage for a similar outcome in Afghanistan. After being hailed as a “compromiser” - backing Obama’s surge of 30,000 troops over 40,000 and now bringing them home three months sooner than General David Petraeus requested - Gates wanted another year to “break the Taliban’s momentum.” He served as a key driver in extending the war, not a brake system, and even admitted that Afghanistan's surge will run three times as long as Iraq’s.
A curtailing of Pentagon spending also dovetails into the future of America’s military: Special Forces and automated warfare. Although hailed as a way to keep America in hostile environments without deploying large numbers of ground forces, this future phase of warfare is becoming more detached from the local populations. The foundations of U.S. strategy against al-Qaeda remain suspect in every peripheral network. In North Africa, the Pentagon remains tethered to a suspect Algerian government and faces many of Afghanistan’s non-military challenges in Mali, Mauritania, Niger and the rest of the Sahel. The African Union’s campaign against al-Shabab is on the upswing in Somalia, yet the international community has now backed itself into a dependent relationship with Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president of 26 years and a current target of domestic unrest.
The Obama administration’s meltdown in Yemen can be traced directly to Gates and Petraeus, who secretly authorized and negotiated Obama’s military escalation with Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Having promoted Petraeus all the way to CIA Director and replacing himself with the drone-happy Leon Panetta, Gates has crafted a reckless policy for engaging al-Qaeda’s global nodes. Osama bin Laden’s death empowered their belief that pinpoint raids and drones are the answer to every asymmetric military threat facing America. This theory reaches a workable level of practicality when backstopping political action, which U.S. officials claim to understand. Yet as Gates voiced his objections over Libya, he passively supported Saudi Arabia's invasion of Bahrain and endorsed one-dimensional military operations in Yemen. Such base counter-terrorism is doomed to fail in the long-term fight against al-Qaeda.
Robert Gates leaves the Obama administration as one of the most distinguished Defense Secretaries in U.S. history. He also leaves the White House and Pentagon on the wrong side of the Arab Spring, after promoting successors to continue Riyadh's counter-revolution. Thus it is difficult to understand how the Pentagon is securely positioned for the future, for a potential 5-10 year cycle of revolution in the Middle East and Africa. America doesn’t need another Robert Gates or Leon Panetta - it needs minds that sincerely understand and relate to the Arab Spring. Minds that will aid the revolutions instead of creating new enemies.
And neither the American or Muslim youth need Obama to corrupt them.