Inter Press Service
"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, of course, sounds entirely banal today, nearly three years after the outbreak of a global financial crisis that would underline Washington's relative decline vis-à-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 Vice President Dick Cheney, who, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, drove the U.S. into two costly wars and doubled a defence 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".
For Gates, 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.
Whether he succeeded in that effort remains unclear, but, as he left the capital July 1 for his retirement home in "the other Washington" on the U.S. Northwest coast, few here doubt that he will be remembered as one of the most influential secretaries of defence in the country's history.
"James Forrestal created the Department of Defence, 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, U.S. power could not be opposed, and the only questions were where and how we wanted to intervene and have our way," Prados told IPS. "I see Robert Gates as appreciating that there are limits to our power and attempting to re-align the defence organisation and our actual policies accordingly."
"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 defence 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. 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 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 to 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 later.
After Bush's defeat to Bill Clinton in 1992, Gates followed his boss back to Texas where he became president of Texas A&M University.
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 sceptical of the kinds of foreign policy adventures favoured 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 U.S. military power.
Whether George W. Bush by November 2006 had come to share that scepticism 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 centre and to a more moderate brand of internationalism after a more extremist first term," agreed Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Gates 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 Adm. Mike Mullen as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who made his opposition to either a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran crystal clear.
Using his considerable bureaucratic skills, he also recommended like- minded policymakers for critical posts, such as Adm. 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 tracks.
"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.
Working with 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 defence secretary to lobby for major increases in the State Department and foreign aid budgets.
"I've heard him say repeatedly that we over-militarise 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 way."
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 it.
"What's clear is that Gates recognised 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 things."
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 defence 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 Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur so delicately put it," he told West Point cadets in February.
"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 U.S. military," he said.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org).