Fred Kaplan’s admiring rendering of his interview with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which appears today in Foreign Policy’s online edition under the headline “The Transformer,” will assure Slate’s national-security correspondent continued access to the Pentagon’s E-Ring power corridors. It may not serve the American people quite as well.
Secretary Gates has the unenviable task of presiding over the latest “hollowing-out of the military,” as Jimmy Carter’s Army chief of staff Edward C. “Shy” Meyer once described it. Even before the announcement by Gates, the Bush-appointed Republican technocrat kept on by President Obama, of his intention to cut $100 billion from the defense budget over the next five years, the secretary had already eliminated what were arguably each of the armed services’ highest-priority programs: the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, the Navy’s DDG-1000, the Army’s Future Combat System, and the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.
What do these have in common, besides their being crucial to the modernization of the sponsoring service? They are all indispensable to the projection of power by the United States. Secretary Gates has made it fairly clear that that’s not his priority; he wants to retool the military to fight today’s counterinsurgency operations and not much more. If history is any guide, the result is going to be a vacuum of power that will be filled by America’s enemies and one-time allies — to our extreme detriment.
Even so, Gates has let it become known that he would like to cut even further. He’s been bad-mouthing the Navy’s aircraft carriers, even though he told Kaplan he wasn’t crazy enough to attack them frontally. On the other hand, he seems to be signaling that he is crazy enough to think we no longer need an amphibious warfare capability or even the U.S. Marines Corps.
Speaking of history, Kaplan introduces his subject by reporting Secretary Gates’s confession that he engaged in bit of subterfuge at the close of the Bush administration. In the fall of 2008, the Pentagon chief made a number of highly visible speeches seemingly designed to tee up the problems his successor would have to address. Notable among these were remarks arguing powerfully for the modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. Gates’s appeal for new thermonuclear arms to replace those that make up the arsenal today, weapons he rightly warned were too long untested and obsolescing, was as surprising (especially given the venue he chose for one such speech: the left-wing, arms-control-loving Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) as it was commendable.
According to Kaplan, it turns out that Gates was angling to keep the Pentagon job all along. And, it appears that the price exacted for being allowed to stay on, thereby giving cover to Barack Obama’s utter lack of national-security credentials and his disarmament agenda, was that the secretary had to go along with the new president’s reckless determination to neither develop new nuclear arms nor test the aging ones we have — which is no way to value the mission of those charged with assuring the safety, effectiveness, and reliability of our deterrent.
As it happens, the American people appear to have the good sense Bob Gates once exhibited on these matters. A new Rasmussen poll shows that by a 77–15 percent margin, the public thinks nuclear weapons are “important” (51 percent say very important) to our country’s national security; 57 percent think we should not reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal (compared to only 27 percent who say we should); and a clear plurality and near-majority (46 percent) think we should not halt the development of new nuclear weapons (versus only 31 percent who say we should, with 24 percent undecided). Imagine what our countrymen would think if they knew the truth: We haven’t introduced a new weapons design in over two decades!
Importantly, by a 55–37 percent margin, Americans in this poll rejected President Obama’s laughable contention that, if only the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal and development, other nations will follow suit. They intuitively understand that the only country Team Obama can disarm is ours. It will be a sorry legacy for Bob Gates — and a very bad thing for freedom — if it turns out that he has contributed to such a course of action to a greater degree than any of his predecessors since the one to whom Fred Kaplan so favorably compares him: Robert Strange McNamara.
— Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., and host of the syndicated program Secure Freedom Radio.