In a fundamental Pentagon policy shift, he bluntly criticized the department for giving too much emphasis to preparing for unlikely general wars, while our most serious challenges involve limited unconventional wars. Afghanistan still provides exhibit A.
Secretary Gates fought hard and generally successfully to reduce weapons programs. Prime targets included the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter, Boeing’s C-17 transport, proposals to arm 747 aircraft with laser weapons, the Army’s Future Combat Systems operation and the Missile Defense Agency. He abolished the Joint Forces Command, a Virginia facility with powerful support on Capitol Hill.
Gates’ greatest contribution in the job, going beyond strategies and weapons, probably was his devotion of sustained emphasis to the high suicide rates and emotional stresses among our military personnel. Over the 20th century, descriptions grew ever more clinically impersonal, from “shell shock” to “battle fatigue” and now “post-traumatic stress disorder.” He spearheaded a public education effort made even more important by the all-volunteer military, by definition generally removed from lives of most Americans.
As nonpartisan public servant, he shielded Obama and the Democratic Party. While Democrats took the White House and Congress in 2008, a representative ABC-Washington Post public opinion poll showed that Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain was viewed as more likely than Obama to protect national security. The Republican Party has continued to poll relatively strongly regarding defense concerns.
Robert Gates successfully opposed what President Eisenhower accurately described as the enormous “military-industrial complex,” but his standing is now significantly changed.
Marshall felt strongly that leadership success was directly related to keeping working relationships formal and maintaining public discretion — and he is right.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.