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Progress Report on Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense.

Why are we still in Iraq?
A too-abrupt hand-over without a government able to provide security for its people would lead to chaos--adding to the damage and displacement problems.

Why are we still in Afghanistan?
The mission of this justified war remains un-accomplished. The danger appears to have escalated.

Why is that?
The US was not prepared for this new type of war. Military dogma dimmed the mind, the Pentagon bureaucracy was a metaphor for molasses.

How long will it be necessary to fight such wars?
Until the root causes of terrorism, inequality, corruption, racism, demonization, and exploitation of others--especially women and children--have been eliminated.

What follows is an update on the performance of the only Bush holdover appointee who was/is up to the job in this new military age. Obama was wise to retain him.

Robert M. Gates is a small man of 65 years. He is not a veteran, but he has spent most of his professional life in governmental service, the CIA importantly. After a stint as president of Texas A&M University, he accepted an appointment to be Secretary of Defense in 2006.

Gates is a rarity in governmental circles: he holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University and a Doctor of Humane Letters from William and Mary. Both schools rank among America's finest.

On a personality scale central to this web site, Gates rates high on dominance, a distinguishing feature of the Authoritarian Personality, AP. He is a hard-driving and demanding manager who does not abide ingrained incompetence or deceit. More heads have rolled in the Defense Department for these two reasons than under any other Secretary in Defense Department history.

Never having been fired from a job, he is right where he needs to be in obedience, another AP feature.

AP credentials normally limit one's insights to the superficial. Not so for Mr. Gates. He views the realities of conflicts through the eyes of those on the ground; at the same time he can relate what needs to be done on the ground to the policy level. (In these ways he is not a true AP.)

As a result, the entire defense establishment is being overhauled. Large expensive systems that can only bleed the treasury for years to come are being trashed.

For example, his recent testimony before Congress included this statement:

"Listening to our troops and commanders, unvarnished and unscripted, has from the moment I took this job been the greatest single source of ideas on what the department needs to do."

From this it is obvious that Gates rates low on conventionalism, another distinguishing trait of the AP. He doesn't rate so low as to have no credibility. But he is shaking up the armed services to meet today's needs. After all, if we cannot get through today, there will be no tomorrow. These are unconventional times.

So what has all this meant? On the one hand, his troops call him a micro-manager. This seems like sour grapes from here. When he micro-manages, even down to amenities for Predator pilots at their Nevada base, he micro-manages more for effectiveness then to simply boss people around. He is consistent and well controlled according to his staff. He delegates well and listens to all. His decisions stick.

To illustrate, we quote from a recent article in the Washington Post by Greg Jaffe:

  • The Secretary's Vision:

    Since the early days of his tenure, Gates's vision for remaking the military has been shaped more by the daily frustrations of running the vast Pentagon bureaucracy than grand ideas about future wars. Those frustrations came to a head in early 2008 when commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan were clamoring for more intelligence equipment, particularly Predator unmanned surveillance aircraft.

    The field commanders estimated that they needed more than 40 Predator combat air patrols in the two war zones. At the time, the Air Force was able to maintain 12. When Gates asked the Air Force to find more surveillance planes, senior officials replied that they could provide four more patrols. Some Air Force officials also questioned whether the wartime commanders needed so many surveillance planes.

    "The bureaucracy's first impulse was to deny that the demand really existed," said Brad Berkson, who served as director of program analysis and evaluation in the defense secretary's office.

    In the weeks that followed, Gates pulled together a special task force, made up of his immediate staff and some military officers, to find more surveillance planes, both manned and unmanned. "We literally counted every tail in the fleet," said one Pentagon official involved in the effort. The results were stunning: The task force found that less than 25% of the military's arsenal of surveillance aircraft, which included Air Force Predators, Army Shadows and Navy P-3 Orion planes, was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, .

    The deficiencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were a result of a shortage of Air Force control stations, from which pilots fly the unmanned aircraft. The Air Force also hadn't trained enough pilots to operate all of the Predators in its rapidly expanding arsenal.

    Gates's team went to extreme lengths to get more hours out of the available ground control stations and pilots. The task force arranged for experienced pilots to use stations normally set aside for training to fly combat missions during off hours. Because the Predators are controlled using satellite links, pilots can operate aircraft flying in Afghanistan and Iraq from bases in the United States.

  • Gates appears to be just what the US Government bureaucracy needs. Vision, drive, grounding in how things can and must be done, and hard-nosed enough to get it done. The bureaucratic rule book may never be the same--let us hope.

    No one can foretell our future in Afghanistan or Iraq. But if the military can play a role in the war against terror, Gates and General Petraeus, along with their teams, are well suited to find the way. Whatever that situation, diplomacy and politics will be even more important. Again the right person seems to be in the White House.

    We are against war. But when it is necessary, it must be fought right, which includes minimizing civilian casualties during battle and nation rebuilding thereafter. We can only hope that Gates' time in office will be sufficient for him to institutionalize what his doctorate in Humane Letters implies.

    Gates wins our admiration for one other feature: He is a lifelong learner!


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