Defense Secretary Robert Gates was professional and effective in office, but has abruptly reversed course with his new volume of memoirs which bluntly criticize former colleagues, including President Barack Obama.
Gates' extensive, often harshly negative discussion of personalities is unfortunate, for him and for our nation’s foreign policy.
This development brings to mind General George C. Marshall, who as U.S. army chief of staff was vital to World War II victory. He then led the state and defense departments, where he became a target of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and associates in the anti-communist hysteria of the time.
When Marshall died, I was working after school as an office clerk for a Pacific war veteran who ran a small business. Mr. Henricks survived the horrific combat of Bougainville, but with physical and emotional wounds apparent to a young boy.
He usually tried fiercely to focus on the business but took a break to discuss the general with reverence, uncharacteristic sentimentality from this restless, tormented man. I wondered why the top military commander had such a hold on this line soldier.
Marshall never produced memoirs, and he turned down enormous offers from publishers. From a vastly different America, he viewed public service as a special privilege. He was concerned about embarrassing others and inadvertently compromising national security.
President Franklin Roosevelt was annoyed that the chief of staff refused to be called by his first name, or get together socially, but also emphasized during the war he could not sleep at night if Marshall was outside the country. Marshall captured FDR too.
Gates has received deserved great respect, with an unprecedented tenure as defense secretary continuously during both the Bush and the Obama administrations. His undeniable policy successes include changing defense strategic planning overall while cutting specific weapons systems.
In a fundamental Pentagon policy shift, he bluntly criticized the department for giving too much emphasis to preparing for unlikely general wars, while our most serious challenges involve limited unconventional wars. Afghanistan still provides exhibit A.
Secretary Gates fought hard and generally successfully to reduce weapons programs. Prime targets included the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighter, Boeing’s C-17 transport, proposals to arm 747 aircraft with laser weapons, the Army’s Future Combat Systems operation, and the Missile Defense Agency. He abolished the Joint Forces Command, a Virginia facility with powerful support on Capitol Hill.
Gates’ greatest contribution in the job, going beyond strategies and weapons, probably was his devotion of sustained emphasis to the high suicide rates and emotional stresses among our military personnel. Over the 20th century, descriptions grew ever more clinically impersonal, from "shell shock" to "battle fatigue" and now "post-traumatic stress disorder." He spearheaded a public education effort made even more important by the all-volunteer military, by definition generally removed from lives of most Americans.
As nonpartisan public servant, he shielded Obama and the Democratic Party. While Democrats took the White House and Congress in 2008, a representative ABC-Washington Post public opinion poll showed that Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain was viewed as more likely than Obama to protect national security. The Republican Party has continued to poll relatively strongly regarding defense concerns.
Gates successfully opposed what President Dwight Eisenhower accurately described as the enormous "military-industrial complex," but his standing is now significantly changed.
Marshall felt strongly leadership success was directly related to keeping working relationships formal and maintaining public discretion – and he is right.