Gates Ratchets Up His Campaign of Candor
By THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON — This is the season when defense secretaries typically sit for hours, hat in hand, before Congressional committees to plead for more money and then journey to the military academies to give perfunctory speeches about patriotism before young cadets.
He sharply criticized members of the House of Representatives this week for spending money on Humvees that the Army did not want instead of buying surveillance systems needed to protect troops. In recent speeches, he has rebuked military leaders for clinging to ancient concepts of war — and by ancient he means before Sept. 11, 2001. And he has cited the painful experiences still unfolding in Afghanistan and Iraq to warn of grave risks if the military again intervenes in the Muslim world, this time in Libya, using tones far more grim than others in the Obama cabinet.
Even for a particularly outspoken defense secretary, Mr. Gates has reached a new level of candor. Perhaps he feels liberated by the fact that he is retiring soon and leaving Washington, a city, he has said, “where so many people are lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory.”
Mr. Gates’s independence is a reminder that if he leaves this year — as he has insisted he will — his departure will kick off a search that will help define the administration. Will the president choose someone as outspoken, with a bipartisan pedigree that allows him to criticize the conduct of combat and makes him acceptable to Republicans?
The next defense secretary will have to grapple with two wars and brisk budget-cutting battles that for the first time promise to involve the Pentagon. It is a military that has been at war for a remarkable 10 years, and with an all-volunteer force. For these and other reasons it is in the middle of a number of profound debates, including how technology is changing the very nature of war.
If his recent public comments are any measure, Mr. Gates appears to be worried about how it will all go when he steps down. Before Air Force Academy cadets in Colorado Springs on Friday, the defense secretary said that starting three years ago, he “challenged the Air Force, and indeed our entire military, to do more, much more” to send surveillance drones to collect more information on adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The process, he said, was like “pulling teeth” because the Air Force preferred white-scarf pilots at the stick of high-tech fighters to those sitting in trailers operating slow-flying drones. But the Air Force came around.
“The versatility on display by the Air Force in combat theaters these past few years befits the greatest traditions of the force,” he added. Yet Mr. Gates said he was concerned that once he departed, and once American forces were drawn down in Afghanistan and Iraq, then too many would try and “get back to what some consider to be real Air Force normal.”
That provocative assessment was mild compared to what Mr. Gates told the next generation of Army officers a week ago at West Point. “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,” Mr. Gates said.
Mr. Gates said his intention was to prod the Army to reshape its budget to slim down the number of armored units and prepare for the most likely challenges presented by terrorists, small rogue governments and upheavals in countries that cannot defend themselves.
His comments were hijacked by the left and the right. Liberals cheered that Mr. Gates actually opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And conservatives warned that his comments might comfort the insurgency.
Mr. Gates fired back on Friday, saying his remarks had been “distorted by some and misunderstood by others.”
“During my tenure as secretary of defense, I have approved the largest increases in the size of the Army and Marine Corps in decades,” Mr. Gates said. “And I supported and have presided over the surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”
This week, in warning about a no-flight zone over Libya, Mr. Gates seemed to take a position that was out of step with the rest of the administration. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said they wanted to leave all options on the table — including making it tough for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to use jets to kill his own people. Mr. Gates made it clear, however, that any use of the military invited battle.
“Let’s just call a spade a spade,” Mr. Gates told Congress. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.”