Robert M. Gates is one of those people the Beltway Consensus refers to as a “serious adult”: not overtly partisan, measured in his pronouncements, possessed of actual knowledge about the job he has been charged to do. The adulation he has received is certainly understandable if we grade on a curve; his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, established an Olympic record for petty vanity, nasty abrasiveness, and disastrous professional judgment. Such a collective sigh of relief greeted Rumsfeld’s departure that his successor was bound to shine in comparison.
But what of Gates’s record on his own merits? He is given to making such comments as, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” A normal person would infer that he is opposed to the types of military intervention that have contributed significantly to a near-bankruptcy of the country. Yet in practice he has taken concrete measures to protract the very problem he professes to deplore.
In Gates’s public pronouncements he has continually, if subtly, undercut with hedges and conditionalities the President’s and Vice President’s statements of their determination to draw down troops in Afghanistan by a date certain and eventually to leave. He also — like all of official Washington — insists on conflating the Taliban and al Qaeda and following the failed strategy that has been pursued for 10 years. It is hardly conceivable that rational people would combat a limited and internationally dispersed number of al Qaeda operatives by plunking down a field army of 100,000 troops in a landlocked mountainous country for a decade-long occupation (CIA Director Leon Panetta has publicly estimated the number of al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan to be around two dozen). And however unsuitable that occupying army is for nullifying a threat that has operated from Hamburg to Bali, it seems well calculated to incite a local insurgency — as has been the experience of foreign military occupations since the Trojan War. The morphing of al Qaeda into the Taliban is a blunder of such proportions as to put it right up there with the fanciful Saddam Hussein-al Qaeda link in the museum of Washington idiocies.
Moreover, it is the established policy of the United States, as set out in a status of forces agreement, that U.S. forces should leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Yet for months Gates has been shuttling to Baghdad, practically pleading with the Maliki government to allow the military to stay there past the deadline. It is surprising, to say the least, that the President would allow a subordinate to undermine an intended accomplishment that he, the President, could point to in order politically to mollify a large number of the people who had elected him.
Yet it is not so surprising when seen in the context of Beltway power games. According to a source inside the Pentagon, Gates, as a condition of staying on with the Obama administration, told the President that there must be no defense cuts beyond minor, symbolic ones. Again, it would be surprising that a President would accede to such a demand from a subordinate, but it shows that President Obama evidently lacks confidence in his own public credibility on defense and that he had to use Gates as cover. Hence, the $178 billion in “cuts” that Gates announced earlier this year were only $78 billion in real reductions — this out of a planned 10-year DOD budget of $6.1 trillion. Yes, the draconian cuts amount to about 1.3 percent of the planned total.
Gates has also managed to confuse the Beltway illuminati by his double talk. On the one hand he boasts about all the painful cuts he has made and will make to the Pentagon budget. In his next breath he says there must be no cuts. His legerdemain reached an apotheosis of sorts in an umpteenth valedictory speech, this one on May 24th before the neocon hatchery of the American Enterprise Institute. One sentence stands out: “I have long believed — and I still do — that the defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes.”
Is he serious? According to the Congressional Budget Office the United States has spent just under $1.3 trillion to date on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Including debt service would bump that number up to about $1.7 trillion. Beginning in 2001, DOD’s regular budget — that is, not including the cost of the war — rose a cumulative total of approximately $1 trillion above the CBO baseline for the 2001-2011 period. With debt service that comes to about $1.3 trillion. Together, the war and the regular defense budget increases added $3 trillion to the national debt.
When one adds all the “panic” spending initiated attendant to the Pentagon’s wars, such as well-above baseline increases for the State Department, the cobbling together of Homeland Security, and increased spending on the Veterans Department, as well the 2003 creation of programs like Tricare for Life (a $127-billion program over the next 10 years) amid the patriotic hysteria of the invasion of Iraq, then the Pentagon and the war-enabling agencies and programs that bob in its wake have been responsible for close to $4 trillion of the nearly $12-trillion [.pdf] swing from surplus to deficit since 2001. When you add the $2.8 trillion in tax cuts so beloved of the “fiscal conservatives” who infest the Republican Party, then it is clear that more than half of the fiscal deterioration since 2001 was the result of the two signature programs of the Bush administration: perpetual war and upward income redistribution.
We can probably expect more farewell speeches in the month before his final departure. Indeed, Gates has been taking final victory laps for the last six months as he bows on the lime-lit stage. He is beginning to resemble Sarah Bernhardt — or Oprah.
My advice: just go.
* Werther is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.
Phi Beta Iota: The only thing not mentioned is the FACT that the US Government, “in our name,” BORROWS $1 trillion a year, ONE THIRD of the ANNUAL budget of the federal government, to pay for all this crap–a dysfunctional, over-weight, under-intelligent Department of War with ZERO integrity.