I have mixed feelings about his departure. When he first took office, it was as a replacement for Secretary Rumsfeld, who had, in the final years in office, managed to do significant damage to the Defense Department and make some very unfortunate decisions in the conduct of the Iraqi War. Rumsfeld's service to the country was long and honorable, but his final years were a disaster and his micromanaging methods were inappropriate for an organization with a budget in the several hundred billion dollar range and over 3 million employees. Stepping into office following Rumsfeld’s forced departure, Robert Gates did a remarkably good job under President Bush. In addition, his handling of the Administration transition resulted in a deft and smooth operation.
My comfort level with Mr. Gates began to change after the transition. He appeared to take on the political philosophies of the new administration. At first I just wrote this off to a very high level of professionalism. As a member of the President’s Cabinet he was, after all, expected to support and carry out the Presidents decisions. He started exceeding his professional obligations to the President by making a few comments that have made me quite nervous. He gave a couple of speeches in May where he indicated a change in direction for the Department of Defense that, frankly, scared me a little.
In one speech he spoke of the need , in light of budgetary constraints, to reconsider the need for the US Marine Corps to have an amphibious capability. The idea of a Marine Corps which was not able to conduct amphibious operations around the world is an absolutely ludicrous one and the Secretary should be ashamed to even suggest such a thing, budget considerations or not.
In a second speech he suggested that the Navy’s 11 carrier battle groups (originally guaranteed to be in operation through 2040) should be reduced to 9 and that we no longer needed nuclear submarines operating on station around the world. Again, his suggesting such reductions is not what I would expect from the Secretary of Defense even in the face of hard budget decisions.
In fairness to Mr. Gates, it may very well be that his speeches were a result of his anticipating the direction the Obama Administration will be taking as money becomes increasingly tight (as a result of consistent over spending by the Federal Government). In anticipating his own departure, he may be using these speeches to alert us to the dangers ahead for the Department of Defense under President Obama. I’d like to think so.
The obvious question, of course, is whom is President Obama going to tap to replace the Secretary of Defense? The departure of Robert Gates will, after all, be particularly significant, as it will clear the way for the Obama administration’s first real pick to lead the Pentagon. Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island tops most lists. He is a West Point graduate and has years of experience on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he works on veterans issues and military construction. Another possibility is John Hamre, deputy Defense Secretary during the Clinton administration and now head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Hamre is one of the capital’s most respected defense professionals. Finally, Richard Danzig, the Secretary of the Navy under Bill Clinton, is also under consideration. While all of these people would be basically qualified for the post, I can not resist the urge to point out that they all share one important trait. They are liberal orientated "yes" men - exactly what Obama wants and not what he needs (especially leading the Pentagon).
In the final analysis, Robert Gates departure is well timed. He has served honorably and effectively and leaving now, before the President turns his attention to the Department of Defense in an effort to remold it to conform with his vision of where America should be going, is probably the best way to ensure that, overall, his contributions to the country remain positive.
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Personal Comment: Yesterday President Obama declined to lay the Memorial Wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery as has been the usual custom of American Presidents on this day. He opted to go to the Lincoln National Cemetery instead to give a speech so it would not interfere with his holiday vacation. This time, however, a severe thunderstorm swept in and before he could deliver his remarks he got soaked and lightening caused the ceremonies to be canceled. Apparently there is a God.
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