Robert Gates: 21st Century Cold Warrior

It is 50 years in the future. America's most distinguished historians (all arriving in carbon-free rocket cars) gather for a conference assessing "the secretary of defense who best exemplified Cold War thinking." Their subject: Robert Michael Gates.

It might seem odd that future chroniclers would pick a man who ran the Pentagon 20 years after the fall of Communism as the defense leader who most typified the era of hyper-superpower competition. But Gates' approach to the defense authorization bill recently pushed through Congress is riddled with "old think."

The quintessential Cold Warrior belief was they faced a predictable enemy. Planners assumed they knew the kind of war they would fight. That description certainly fits Gates.

In a May 2008 speech, Gates observed, "I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called Next-War-itis--the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict."

Gates has certainly quashed that tendency. Instead, he has ordered the military to plan for the kinds of wars the United States is fighting today. During the Cold War, U.S. planners kept preparing to fight Soviet tanks on the German plain. Today, Gates wants the military to prepare to struggle with more-Talibans in more Afghanistans.

The problem with this is that the next war is seldom the same as today's war. Enemies who really want to kill you prepare for the kinds of battles that you don't want to fight. Thus, for example, when Gates pushes to cut funding for advanced fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers, and missile defenses, it only prods our enemies to build robust air defenses and deadly fleets of ballistic missiles.

Picking only the wars you want is the essence of bad Cold War thinking--and Gates may turn out to be its worst practioner.

Gates also shares a Cold War predilection for arms control and superpower negotiations. In large part, Gates is so blasé about preparing for threats like the resurgence of conventional conflicts because he believes these dangers can be eliminated by treaties. No leaders in history were more treaty happy than America's Cold Warriors.

Arguably, the only one of them who was really successful was Ronald Reagan. He negotiated from a position of strength, building up our nuclear deterrence, reinvigorating conventional forces and introducing missile defenses before going to the bargaining table.

Gates is following in the more conventional--and unsuccessful--Cold War tradition: Using talks to substitute for strength. He wants to negotiate out of weakness--cutting missile defenses, letting our nuclear arsenal rust, and gutting our most-technologically advanced conventional weapons program--first.

Of course, Gates is not the first Secretary of defense to want to cut defense spending without appearing to be weak on defense. He is following in the footsteps of Cold Warrior Extraordinaire Robert McNamara, the defense secretary who gutted the Pentagon's weapons development budget to pay for Vietnam. That's the Gates' plan for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Similarly, Harold Brown, Jimmy Carter's Secretary of defense, bought nothing. Instead, he promised a new generation of weapons--the stuff the military really needed. Few of those promises came true--most not until the Cold War was over.

Meanwhile, during the post-Vietnam years, the military went "hollow." Lacking sufficient resources, our fighting forces were stuck with outmoded equipment until the Reagan military build-up came along.

That's a likely consequence of the Gates approach, too. He's pushing the cost of modernizing onto some future administration. In the meantime, America's enemies will be catching up.

Gates won virtually every round of this year's battle over the defense authorization bill. At his behest, dozens of modernization programs were killed or curtailed. In the process, he cowed even the most ardent proponents of a strong national defense on both sides of the aisle.

Sadly, winning in Washington is not winning on the battlefield. In defense policy, victory is measured by how well we can deter our enemies, not our politicians.

James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in the Washington Examiner