Defense Secretary Robert Gates is leaving the Pentagon as a Washington "wise man," admired by both Republicans and Democrats for his supposed judgment and integrity. But does he deserve that reputation -- or is he just an especially clever manipulator of the political process?
As Robert Gates ends his four-plus years as Defense Secretary, he has accomplished one of Washington's more notable image makeovers, shedding an earlier reputation as a sneaky ideological chameleon for new skin as a respected "wise man" hailed by Republicans, Democrats and the press.
But the transformation may underscore how great a careerist Gates is rather than mark any actual improvement in his judgment. In his early days, he was viewed as a climber who would change colors to match the political hues of those above him; now, it seems his decades of accommodating the powerful have earned him their appreciation and acclaim.
In that sense, Gates can be compared to Colin Powell. Though taking different routes, both achieved a reputation for integrity and wisdom that didn't match their actual records, which -- if examined carefully -- showed them getting a lot wrong but having positioned themselves safely inside a consensus of powerful allies. So, they rose regardless of their many screw-ups.
As Secretary of State in 2003, Powell did suffer what he called a "blot" on his reputation when he gave a thoroughly dishonest speech to the United Nations justifying war with Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction.
But the fact that Powell's WMD falsehoods fit with the conventional wisdom of Official Washington spared his status any serious consequences; he remains the go-to guy when the Super Bowl honors America. [For more on Powell's real history, see Consortiumnews.com's "Behind Colin Powell's Legend."]
Similarly, Gates -- both in his earlier incarnation as an ambitious national security bureaucrat and in his return to the national stage in 2006 as Defense Secretary -- adopted positions favored by key elements of the power elite.
In his career's first act in the 1980s, Gates ingratiated himself to Cold War hardliners, including the emerging neoconservatives, by distorting CIA analyses to exaggerate the Soviet menace (and thus justify higher military spending). Ultimately, Gates' politicized CIA was so busy hyping Moscow's strength that it missed the Soviet collapse.
After his Washington career's second act began in 2006, Gates pleased much of the same constituency by supporting the troop "surges" in Iraq and Afghanistan (even as those bloody conflicts continue their slide toward slow-motion defeats for the United States). At the cost of a couple of thousand more dead U.S. soldiers, Gates staved off obvious failures until his patron, George W. Bush, and the neocons had left the scene.
Even Gates' much-ballyhooed Pentagon budget trimming -- while winning rave reviews from the news media -- was more P.R. than reality.
As noted by military affairs expert Lawrence J. Korb, Gates' high-profile savings were mostly weapons projects, like the F-22, that were already slated for the scrap heap. Plus, Gates has rejected any substantial cuts in future military spending despite having personally overseen a rise in the baseline Pentagon budget from $450 billion in 2006 to $550 billion now.
In other words, Gates continues to carry the neocons' water, demanding high levels of military spending even as important domestic programs, from energy technology to health care, face sharp cuts. And the neocons continue to reward the 67-year-old Defense Secretary with flattering press clippings.
Axing an Adversary
Despite his impending Pentagon departure in late June, Gates also showed that he can still put to use his bloated reputation and his genuine bureaucratic skills to shape the national security debate.
His anger over Marine Gen. James Cartwright's willingness to give President Barack Obama's alternative options to the Afghan "surge" in 2009 is reported to have destroyed Cartwright's prospects of getting named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock reported on Sunday that Cartwright's expected elevation from JCS deputy chairman to JCS chairman was nixed, in part, by Gates who "had long mistrusted Cartwright because of his independent relationship with the president and for opposing [Gates'] plan to expand the war in Afghanistan."