In the next month, after more than four decades of distinguished public service including almost five extraordinary years at the Pentagon supervising the successful surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will retire. He departs as the very model of a Washington "wise man," having served in senior positions in two Democratic and three Republican administrations—the best the inside-the-Beltway establishment has to offer. His parting words, delivered in a series of valedictory speeches, carry the weight of his long experience and sober judgment.
Gates's career spans a remarkable period from the Cold War to today, the events of which raised immense hopes—none more than the collapse of the Soviet Empire—and were punctuated by deep darkness—9/11 and the year 2006 in Iraq. In his May 22 speech at the University of Notre Dame commencement, Gates summed up the classical wisdom of a conservative: "If history—and religion—teach us anything, it is that there will always be evil in the world, people bent on aggression, oppression, satisfying their greed for wealth and power and territory, or determined to impose an ideology based on the subjugation of others and the denial of liberty to men and women."
If mankind has fallen, the United States of America still struggles to lift it up. "Since I entered government 45 years ago, I've shifted my views and changed my mind on a good many things as circumstances, new information, or logic dictated," Gates allowed in a speech last week at the American Enterprise Institute that developed the themes of his commencement address. "But I have yet to see evidence that would dissuade me from this fundamental belief: that America does have a special position and set of responsibilities on this planet."
To protect and promulgate its liberties and the cause of liberty, America must be strong. "More than any other secretary of defense, I have been a strong advocate of ‘soft' power—of the critical importance of diplomacy and development as fundamental components of our foreign policy and national security." But, said Gates, "Make no mistake: the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th, is ‘hard' power—the size, strength, and global reach of the United States military."
This is the heart of the matter. During his service under Barack Obama, Gates has been directed to make three significant rounds of reductions in Pentagon plans and budgets. The first came in early 2009. As the Obama administration prepared to inject $800 billion in "stimulus" into the faltering U.S. economy, canvassing agencies for "shovel-ready" projects, it ordered weapons cuts that totaled about $330 billion.
In 2010, seeing the shifts in the domestic political landscape, Secretary Gates seized the initiative to wring $100 billion in "efficiencies" from defense programs, hoping he would be permitted to reinvest the money in higher priority procurements. He got to keep about three-quarters of the "savings," but the White House took not only the remainder but another $75 billion. The net result was that Gates transferred $78 billion from one Pentagon pot to another, but a further $100 billion was cut. The third round began on April 13, when the president announced—though he hadn't informed Gates until the night before—that the Defense Department would contribute another $400 billion to his "deficit reduction plan."
If brought to fruition, the Obama administration will have sliced something on the order of 15 to 20 percent out of the already overstretched military it inherited. The dollar figures don't reflect the full extent of the damage, but the loss in power is clear: The Army and Marine Corps will return to their pre-9/11 size, and major land, sea, and air projects have been reduced, ended early, or never brought into production. And it might be worse: Secretary Gates has acidly described the defense cuts called for by the chairmen of the president's deficit commission, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, as "catastrophic," driven by budget "math, not [military] strategy."
Gates's parting wisdom can be boiled down to one word: enough. The "low-hanging fruit," he declared at AEI, "those weapons and other programs considered most questionable, have not only been plucked, they have been stomped on and crushed." The fat has been trimmed; what's left is bone.
Gates also defined the challenge for the man nominated to be his successor, Leon Panetta, who's been a strong director of central intelligence but who also, as a congressman in the 1990s, led the charge to reduce defense spending. "We need to be honest with the president, with the Congress, with the American people, indeed with ourselves, about what the consequences [of further defense cuts] are: that a smaller military, no matter how superb, will be able to go fewer places and be able to do fewer things."
Gates's warning should be a call to arms for conservatives who, in election after election, have retained the public's trust by adhering to the principle that American military preeminence is absolutely essential if we want security at home and great-power peace abroad. It is a platform that Republicans in Congress and those running for president, in particular, need to reaffirm. Former Minnesota governor and 2012 presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty got it precisely right when he said: "I'm not one who's going to stand before you and say we need to cut the defense budget. . . . I'm not for shrinking America's presence in the world. I'm for making sure America remains the world leader."
Through the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bob Gates has seen the thin line that separates "too few" from "just enough." He knows how hard it is to turn defeat into a chance for victory. When he says "enough," conservatives—and all Americans—should listen.
Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow and director at Center of Defense Studies at AEI
Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar and director at Center of Advanced Strategic Studies at AEI