Former secretary of defense Robert Gates has unveiled his predictable answer to Russia’s war in Ukraine calling for greater U.S. military power against both Russia and China. As CIA’s director of intelligence in the 1980s, Gates was wrong about every aspect of Soviet power and made sure that his agency would be wrong as well. His “new strategy,” which is neither new nor strategic, calls for increased defense spending to address Russia and China—“adversaries with global reach.” In actual fact, China lacks global reach and has not displayed a serious intent to challenge the United States in the projection of power. Neither Russia nor China has the network of military bases that the United States has expanded after its largely unsuccessful wars.
There is a particular danger in exaggerating the threat that China and Russia represent, although their quasi-alliance needs greater and more sophisticated attention than the Biden national security team has applied. Russia is having great difficulty in Ukraine; its economy will suffer greatly in the near term, and its military in the long term. Moreover, the sanctions against Russia will have a deterrent effect on any Chinese ambitions regarding Taiwan. Unlike Russia, China benefits from an export economy and severe sanctions would undermine its prosperity.
In any event, the emphasis on a two-front war is spectacularly wrong-headed. With the exception of Desert Storm in 1991, the United States and its vaunted military haven’t won a war in fifty years. And the United States and NATO refuse to challenge Russia directly in spite of having superior military capability. The restraining factor here is the possession of nuclear weapons.
Yet Gates (and the Post editorial pages) have the same answer for U.S. post-Cold War strategy: “a larger, more advanced military in every branch;” a “significantly bigger Navy is needed…to protect lines of communication and freedom of navigation;” and a “larger” Army to “increase our military presence in Europe.” Gates argues that the Air Force is a “quarter-century old,” ignoring the F-35 tactical fighter that is currently the most expensive weapons system in our inventory. The United States and its allies in Europe and Asia already significantly outspend Russia and China (and all other countries in the world), and the notion that we can spend our way into conducting a two-front war with Moscow and Beijing is sheer lunacy.
Gates falsely takes credit for cutting “three dozen wasteful or failing legacy programs that…would have cost taxpayers $330 billion.” In fact, nearly all of the so-called “savings” were shifted to other projects, and the defense budget increased by more than 20 percent in his last two years at the Pentagon. Similarly, Gates takes credit for targeting the “proverbial low-hanging fruit” in the weapons inventory, when in fact the number of weapons programs increased under Secretary of Defense Gates, according to the Pentagon’s Selected Acquisition Reports. Wall Street loved Gates; stocks of all major defense companies soared during his stewardship.
Gates favors increased foreign aid to enhance U.S. national security, but most of our aid has been military assistance. The leading recipients of such assistance (Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey) have hardly enhanced our security. Military assistance has contributed to regional instability in the Middle East and to the frightening situation that now exists in East and Central Europe. The United States condemns Russian arms sales to Syria, while it provides assistance to the dictatorship of Bahrain as well as to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have been guilty of war crimes in Yemen. The United States dominates the global sale of weaponry as well.
Gates correctly calls for restoring the United States Information Agency and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which President Bill Clinton downgraded, but says nothing about the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which Clinton destroyed. The arms control dialogue played a major role in the detente between Washington and Moscow in the 1980s, and it could play a role in any strategic dialogue with China. Like most Republican Cold Warriors, Gates has never been a supporter of arms control. And now we have a Biden administration without a serious disarmament specialist.
Once upon a time, Putin tried to interest the United States in discussing greater cuts in strategic weapons; no-first-use of nuclear weapons; no militarization of outer space; and the creation of nuclear-free zones. We need to return to a strategic dialogue with Russia, and bring China into the conversation. Of course, the idea of a strategic dialogue with Russia on any issue is extremely remote.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Gates and the Post is revelatory. In 1991, during the confirmation hearings for Gates as director of central intelligence, the Post’s two leading national security reporters, Walter Pincus and George Lardner, drafted a long editorial piece opposing Gates’ confirmation. Their argument was a simple one: Gates had been a liar throughout the period of Iran-Contra and could not be trusted to head the Central Intelligence Agency. The story never ran because the editor of the op-ed section, Meg Greenfield, and the paper’s editor, Katherine Graham, were favorably disposed toward the Bush administration and Gates. Various Post op-ed writers have referred to Gates as a “senior statesman,” and several have even recommended that Gates should be part of a Republican presidential ticket.
The Post praised Gates’ tenure as secretary of defense, although he played a role in the worsening of relations between the White House and the Pentagon. Time and again, the Pentagon’s senior leaders, particularly Admiral Mike Mullen and Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, made public comments or leaked controversial statements that were designed to force greater military deployments to Afghanistan, when it was clear that President Barack Obama was wisely looking for a way out. Gates’ unwillingness to accept that Obama’s policy toward Afghanistan had changed led him to lead his own campaign to “win” a war that simply wasn’t winnable. He sent more young men and women to Afghanistan than any other secretary of defense. When former vice president Joe Biden warned President Obama not to get “boxed in” by the military, he specifically referred to the role that Gates was playing at the Pentagon.
In the New York Times in July, 2020, Gideon Rose, the editor of “Foreign Affairs, concluded that Gates was “cut from the same cloth” as soldier-statesman George C. Marshall. To paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen from the 1988 presidential campaign, “Secretary Gates—you’re no George C. Marshall.