Friday, July 1, 2011

Celebrating a Better SecDef

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has retired.  My man-crush for him continues.  He was not a perfect SecDef, and we might err in over-loving the guy since his predecessor was so very, very bad at his jobThis piece suggests that one of the most important things he managed to do was to prevent a war with Iran.  I had a running battle/bet* with a friend of mine about a war with Iran, as I didn't think we could be so stupid as to start another conflict in the Persian Gulf.  My friend turned out to be right about how motivated the supporters were, but I turned out to be right about Gates and the military. 

Gates did a lot of things right.  He developed a good, transparent relationship with the military while not being its puppet.  He cut stuff that elements of the military wanted and forced them to invest in things that mattered for the current war like drones and more IED-resistant vehicles (MRAPs).  Gates should get some credit for the mission to take out Osama.  He consistently presented arguments that made him a voice of reason (the Juliet Johnson of the US administration), including his take on wikikeaks.  Gates may have moved more slowly than folks would have liked on Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but his backing made it possible to remove this blight.  He handled the firing of McChrystal as well as one can. 

What these two SecDefs remind us is that individuals and personalities do matter, even as we political scientists focus more attention on international pressures and domestic structures.  The folks manning (personning?) the machines matter a great deal.  At a key point in time, we had a special person running the most dangerous machines.  If only he had been SecDef in 2003-6.  Alas.

Gates earned his accolades, doing a tough job that had plenty of potential to alienate most folks.  Leon Panetta would be wise to keep Gates on the speed-dial.

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