Commentary

The Case Against Retaining Gates at the Pentagon

President-elect Barack Obama’s apparent interest in retaining Robert Gates as secretary of defense and his appointment of two former subordinates of George Tenet to head the transition team at the Central Intelligence Agency point to continuity-not change-in American national security policy.  

The leaders of the transition team, John Brennan and Jami Miscik, were actively engaged in implementing and defending CIA’s corrupt activities under the Bush Administration. Brennan, as chief of staff and deputy executive director under Tenet, was involved in decisions involving rendition and torture. Both Brennan, who rose through the Agency’s analytic ranks, and Miscik, who was deputy director for intelligence under Tenet, knew that analytic tradecraft was being ignored and intelligence manipulated in order to support the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. 

The retention of Bob Gates at the Department of Defense for any length of time would signal Obama’s support for policies he has publically questioned in the past and indicate that he lacks confidence in his own ultimate choice to be Secretary of Defense. Gates has been an enthusiastic supporter of such Bush Administration policies as the deployment of a ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic; the rush to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; continued spending on a National Missile Defense (currently the most expensive weapons system in the Pentagon’s inflated budget); and the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. These policies have weakened the international regime for non-proliferation and the arms control process with Russia and should be reversed by the new Obama Administration.

Furthermore, Gates has failed to tackle the huge budgetary, personnel, and organizational problems that exist at the Department of Defense. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office revealed nearly $300 billion in cost overruns on the largest defense acquisition programs, a problem that Gates has not addressed. Gates also favors an expanded role for the Pentagon in nation-building, which will lead to huge increases in the already-inflated defense budget as soldiers on the ground become both cops and social workers. 

The Pentagon now has authority to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for “reconstruction, stabilization, or security activities in forces countries.” These should be managed by civilian agencies. There is no reason for Obama to extend Gates’ tour. There are numerous well-qualified candidates to replace him. If Obama is genuinely seeking a bipartisan administration, then Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, an infantry officer in Vietnam and a man with deep knowledge of national-security affairs, would be an ideal choice.

Larry Korb, who has served both Democratic and Republican administrations at the Department of Defense, is an expert on defense spending and the weapons acquisition process. Among Democrats, Senator Jack Reed, another Vietnam veteran, and former senator Sam Nunn would be excellent choices. Richard Danzig has severed several administrations at the Pentagon and, unlike Gates, shares Obama’s priorities for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. None of these individuals requires on-the-job training at the Pentagon that would demand retaining Gates as secretary of defense for any length of time. Indeed, managing an appointment this way would be an insult to any qualified candidate for the job.

Finally, if Obama is serious about genuine change in American national security policies and domestic priorities, he will have to address the fundamental problems at the Pentagon, which include the Bush era of profligate spending and the militarization of American diplomacy and the American intelligence community.

Defense Department personnel in recent years have been placed in sensitive positions in public diplomacy and foreign assistance, and active-duty and retired general officers are manning virtually all the key positions of the intelligence community, including the CIA. It is time to enhance the role of the White House in setting U.S. policy and to make sure the National Security Council coordinates the implementation of these policies. Too much power resides in the hands of the military.

The United States must return to the strategic agendas of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, which favored significant reductions of nuclear weapons, the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and enhanced effectiveness for the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States must end its development of low-yield nuclear weapons, such as bunker busters, and deployment of national missile defense in order to return to the high moral ground in the search for disarmament. 

These steps have never been part of Gates’ agenda at the Pentagon, which isolated the United States from the international community. President Obama must establish his own strategic agenda, and he should not begin by appointing or retaining those who served the Bush Administration and its failed policies.

Melvin A. Goodman is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. He is a professor of international security studies and chairman of the international relations department at the National War College. Goodman worked at the CIA from 1966 to 1990 and was division chief and senior analyst at the agency’s Office of Soviet Affairs from 1976 to 1986. 

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