WASHINGTON - "We are in a
multi-polar world now," Robert Gates told a
Washington Post columnist within a year of his
taking over the Pentagon in early 2007.
Such an assertion sounds banal today,
nearly three years after the outbreak of a global
financial crisis that would underline Washington's
relative decline vis-a-vis China and other
emerging powers and bolster the perception that
the 21st-century was unlikely to be as "American"
as the last one.
But, at the time, it was
anathema to the neo-conservatives and other hawks,
led by Dick Cheney, the vice president who, in the
aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the
Pentagon, drove the US into two costly wars and
doubled a defense budget
that was already greater than
the combined spending by the world's next 20
biggest militaries in order to affirm that the
world was in fact "unipolar".
who replaced the strutting, no-nonsense - but
ultimately clueless - Donald Rumsfeld, it was one
of a number of statements designed to nudge his
country into a more realistic understanding of its
place in the world, and, more precisely, the
limits to its vast military power.
he succeeded in that effort remains unclear, but,
as he leaves the capital at the end of this week
for his retirement home in "the other Washington"
on the US northwest coast, few here doubt that he
will be remembered as one of the most influential
secretaries of defense in the country's history.
"James Forrestal created the Department of
Defense, Robert McNamara created its modern
structure, and Gates has taken it from a hegemonic
posture to one that is more realistic," according
to John Prados, a national security historian and
author of a dozen books on the subject.
"For most of his career, US power could
not be opposed, and the only questions were where
and how we wanted to intervene and have our way,"
Prados told Inter Press Service (IPS). "I see
Robert Gates as appreciating that there are limits
to our power and attempting to re-align the
defense organization and our actual policies
"In Washington, it's no
longer considered a sin to question American
omnipotence," wrote Andrew Bacevich, a retired
army colonel and author who teaches international
relations at Boston University on tomdispatch.com
this week. "[T]he Gates legacy is likely to be
found in his willingness - however belated - to
acknowledge the limits of American power."
Gates' tenure as defense secretary has
been unique in many ways, not least his status as
the only Pentagon chief to be retained by an
incoming administration - Barack Obama's - of a
different party (Democratic). As he himself has
noted in recent farewell interviews, his breed of
bipartisanship in an increasingly partisan
Washington has become an endangered species.
Perhaps more compelling was his
transformation from a career Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) Soviet analyst during the Cold War
with a reputation for arrogance, political and
bureaucratic opportunism, and shading his reports
to suit his bosses' most-hawkish ideological
predilections into a nearly universally respected
senior statesman willing to speak inconvenient
truths to leaders who would rather not hear them.
Indeed, it was his service as deputy CIA
director under the aggressively anti-communist
crusader and Iran-Contra mastermind William Casey
that resulted in his failed nomination by Ronald
Reagan to take over the agency after Casey's death
in 1987, although he was approved for the job -
over strong Democratic opposition - when he was
nominated by president George H W Bush four years
After Bush's defeat to Bill Clinton
in 1992, Gates followed his boss back to Texas
where he became president of Texas A&M
It was as a member of Bush's
foreign policy team - perhaps the most coherent
and effective since World War II - that Gates
firmly established his reputation as both a master
bureaucrat and as a Republican foreign policy
"realist". It is a breed deeply skeptical of the
kinds of foreign policy adventures favored by the
party's neo-conservatives and aggressive
nationalists, as well as "liberal
interventionists" in the Democratic Party,
particularly if they involved the use of US
Whether George W Bush by
November 2006 had come to share that skepticism is
unclear - most of the neo-conservatives had left
the administration by then, and Cheney's and
Rumsfeld's influence was definitely on the wane.
But once Gates took over the Pentagon, the hawks'
decline accelerated sharply.
"To move the
administration away from the neo-cons and on a
realist trajectory, Gates proved pivotal," said
Steve Clemons, American Strategy director at the
New America Foundation.
"He brought the
Bush administration back to the center and to a
more moderate brand of internationalism after a
more extremist first term," agreed Charles Kupchan
of the Council on Foreign Relations.
cleaned out Pentagon officials who had either
actively supported or excessively deferred to
Rumsfeld and Cheney, replacing them with far more
independent-minded officers, most importantly
Admiral Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint
Chiefs, who made his opposition to either a US or
Israeli attack on Iran crystal clear.
Gates is to be succeed by Leon Panetta,
who moves from his position as director of the
Central Intelligence Agency.
considerable bureaucratic skills, Gates also
recommended like-minded policymakers for critical
posts, such as Admiral Mike McConnell, with whom
he had worked closely under the elder Bush, for
Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The two
men pushed hardest for the White House to release
the summary of the 2007 National Intelligence
Estimate (NIE) that effectively stopped a Cheney
and neo-conservative drive to rally support for an
attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities dead in its
"If one person were to receive the
top credit for preventing an attack on Iran's
nuclear facilities, it would be Gates," wrote Ido
Oren, an international relations professor at the
University of Florida this week.
with secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and
later with Hillary Clinton under Obama, he
promoted a "reset" of relations with Russia,
doggedly pursued a renewal - after a deep freeze
enforced by Rumsfeld - of military ties with
China, and constantly talked up the virtues of
"soft power", becoming the first defense secretary
to lobby for major increases in the State
Department and foreign aid budgets.
heard him say repeatedly that we over-militarize
our responses to national security challenges,"
Clemons told IPS. "And while the challenge of
rebalancing resources from the military to the
civilian agencies will take a long time, he's laid
the groundwork for that to happen in a compelling
And while the Pentagon budget has
continued to grow in real terms even under Obama,
Gates, as well as Mullen - who last year warned
that the national debt posed the single greatest
threat to national security - became ever more
insistent that Washington could no longer afford
"What's clear is that Gates recognized
we'd gotten ourselves seriously over-extended, and
once the financial meltdown happened, that the
resources available for the military were
inevitably going to shrink," said Stephen Walt, an
influential Harvard international relations
professor who writes a blog for foreignpolicy.com.
"It didn't take a genius to figure this
out, but it took someone who was experienced,
largely devoid of ideology, and wasn't looking for
another job down the road to say all these
Indeed, as his tenure has wound
down, he has become increasingly outspoken, even
alarmist, about the country's future if it does
not come to terms with the limits to its power.
"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 [Douglas] MacArthur so
delicately put it," he told West Point cadets in
"I've spent my entire adult life
with the United States as a superpower and one
that had no compunction about spending what it
took to sustain that position," he told The
DailyBeast just last week. "
... This is a
different time," he went on, noting that he was
retiring at the right moment. "Because frankly ...
I wouldn't want to be part of a government that is
being forced to dramatically scale back our
engagement with the rest of the world.
"... My hope is that those fears are
unfounded, that we will figure out a way ... to
sustain our presence around the world - and even
increase it in the Pacific. But I think there are
some very real questions that are going to have to
be answered in terms of the size and shape of the
US military," Gates said. Jim Lobe's
blog on US foreign policy can be read at