Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s expected retirement will leave a gaping hole in President Obama’s national-security apparatus. At a time of growing instability in the Middle East and increasing challenges to U.S. security interests in the Pacific, an inexperienced or unsteady hand in this top post could have dire consequences.
President Obama’s decision to hold over Gates, a Bush appointee, sent a strong signal that he intended to make good on his predecessor’s more enlightened commitments. Under Gates’s leadership, U.S. forces in Iraq have continued to shrink, under an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration; the United States has redoubled efforts in Afghanistan, in a manner consistent with the Petraeus “surge,” another Bush initiative; it has continued its counterterrorism efforts worldwide, with considerable success; and America has demonstrated to its allies in Asia that it has no intention of withdrawing from the Pacific in the face of an accelerating Chinese military buildup.
Deciding on the right person to replace Gates will be one of the most important decisions Obama makes as president. In his search to find the current secretary’s equal in experience, service, and the high standing he enjoys on both sides of Capitol Hill and in allied capitals, Obama should shy away from both committed ideologues and inexperienced political operatives. He has already filled too many of his front-bench positions from these quarters, and we have seen the unsteady and shaky results. At the present time, Obama has as his national security adviser someone who no one, least of all himself, would describe as a grand strategist in the mold of a Kissinger or Brzezinski.
History suggests that there is no fail-safe method for selecting defense secretaries. Some of those with the strongest résumés failed to meet high expectations — Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld come to mind. And some of those who took office bereft of obvious capabilities in the national-security and defense areas proved exceptional. Witness Caspar Weinberger, the principal point man for Reagan’s defense build-up, the measure that did more to bring down the Evil Empire than anything else.
Perhaps the prototype of what Obama should be looking for is Henry L. Stimson, who served as Franklin Roosevelt’s War Secretary during World War II despite being a Republican, and an active one at that. Stimson mentored most of the original “Wise Men,” and his call for the young to serve their country in its most trying hours inspired young George H. W. Bush to become the youngest naval aviator in American history.
Stimson carried into office with him a variety of life experiences: A successful Wall Street lawyer, he had run for governor of New York, served as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, commanded an artillery battery in World War I, administered the Philippines, and been Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state. He had run the War Department under Taft, three decades before FDR called him back to service. It fell to him to inform the “accidental” president Harry Truman that the U.S. had developed the atomic bomb.
Who among the possible contenders for Gates’s job has this kind of depth and breadth of experience? #more#In a administration that has put a premium more on process than on vision in its national-security policy, there are only two figures who have seen their reputations enhanced by service in high office: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA director Leon Panetta. Clinton, who was undeniably fit to serve as president, and Panetta, who has succeeded in multiple congressional and administrative roles, most reflect the Stimson model. Then again, so does Bob Gates.
No other American has been as insightful in summarizing the problems besetting the American military at present. With nearly a decade of combat behind it, the Army is stretched to the breaking point. The Air Force and Navy, operating with aging aircraft and a shrinking fleet, are poised to become the centerpieces of any future U.S. military engagement. As Gates has noted, the next American wars will be “primarily naval and air engagements — whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere.” The stakes are simply too great for the sole superpower to entrust its defense apparatus to a caretaker or an ineffectual mediocrity.
On the eve of the 1896 Republican National Convention, House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed was asked to handicap his prospects for the presidential nomination. He reportedly said, “They can do a lot worse, and I suspect that they probably will.” With Gates’s departure rumored to be imminent, Obama can spare himself and the nation considerable pain by calling Gates in and telling him that his commander-in-chief and his country still need him. Gates is too good a soldier to say no.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg served as spokesman for the 9-11 Commission and served in the Pentagon during the previous administration. He currently lectures at Yale University and the George Washington University and is affiliated with the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Alexander B. Gray has studied at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and at the War Studies Department of Kings College, London.