Analysis: A year into Obama’s presidency, it’s still Gates’ Pentagon
WASHINGTON — U.S. troops are still in Iraq. More are headed into Afghanistan. Defense spending is up. Gay troops still can’t serve openly in the military.
So where is the dramatically overhauled Pentagon that President Barack Obama’s opponents — and supporters — predicted not long ago?
Just over a year after Obama took the reins as commander in chief, the most sweeping changes expected of the new president’s military policy haven’t taken hold. Despite two wars overseas, Obama’s focus has remained on domestic issues, such as the health care reform fight and the still-struggling economy.
Military topics, while hardly an afterthought, have not attracted the same level of public attention or debate. Experts say that reality, combined with the president’s decision to hold over Defense Secretary Robert Gates from President George W. Bush’s administration, has left the Pentagon without a clear Obama footprint thus far.
“But in a lot of ways, he ought to be congratulated on the degree of continuity and the lack of a dramatic change at the Pentagon,” said James Dobbins, director of the Rand Corporation’s Defense Policy Center.
“You don’t have a sense he came in with an endgame of changing major defense strategy,” Dobbins added. “He’s been persuaded by Gates’ view of focusing on the wars that we’re in, then tending to sustainment of U.S. forces.”
Still, the Pentagon has experienced a slow and sometimes painful culture change in recent years, with more focus on accountability and how stateside decisions affect overseas battlefields. The question is whether the president or defense secretary deserves the credit, and what those indicators mean for the coming years of Obama’s presidency.
In the first two years following his December 2006 confirmation, Gates sacked Army Secretary Francis Harvey (following the Walter Reed scandal), Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne (following his service’s mishandling of nuclear materials) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace (over Congress’ dissatisfaction with his handling of Iraq).
Those efforts to increase accountability within the Pentagon have continued into the Obama presidency, with the firing of the prior Afghanistan commander, Gen. David McKiernan, because “fresh thinking” was needed in the fight; the increase in reprimands for battlefield commanders who lose troops or cause civilian casualties; and the impending punishment of at least six Army officers for their failure to prevent the Fort Hood shootings last fall.
Mike Noonan, deputy director of National Security Studies at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said even if Gates were to depart as secretary at the end of the year, as has been rumored within the Pentagon, , that message of responsibility is likely to remain part of the culture within the ranks.
That’s because it matches up closely with the immediate battlefield focus that both Gates and Obama have emphasized. Military funding and policy priorities have already been shifted to short-term threats and away from conventional, legacy defense concerns such as new weapons systems, as part of the new approach to national security.
Obama’s first defense budget — large sections of which were crafted by Gates before the inauguration — slashed costly and inefficient weapons systems in favor of heavy, bomb-resistant vehicles needed in Afghanistan.
In this year’s defense budget, Gates announced an overhaul of the problematic Joint Strike Fighter Program--and fired the general then overseeing the project--to ensure it doesn’t slip further off schedule or off budget.
“It’s still Gates’ Pentagon, but I don’t know if that really matters,” said Jim Carafano, defense policy expert for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “These may not be Obama’s ideas, but they fit nicely with his priorities. And Gates is a guy that makes things happen in a way that the boss wants them to happen.”
Where Obama was expected to make his clearest mark on the military was in Iraq and Afghanistan, because during the campaign he had promised a radical rethinking of both wars.
Last March, the president laid out plans to draw down nearly all the U.S. troops in Iraq by 2011, but that timetable is still dependent on “conditions on the ground” — a common refrain in the Bush administration.
And anti-war advocates have been dismayed so far with operations in Afghanistan. By this summer, Obama will have nearly tripled the total number of U.S. troops there since he entered the White House.
Meanwhile, Obama’s insistence that the long-term solution Afghanistan must include political and social improvements echoes the 2008 National Defense Strategy approved by Bush and Gates which notes that “military success alone is insufficient to achieve victory.”
Visions of an immediate withdrawal from all overseas wars were never realistic, Noonan said. But the way the “slow glide” decisions were made — closely canvassing military brass for months before the announcements — indicates Obama’s trust in their advice.
Where that could change is with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” debate. Obama has drawn the support of both Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen in repealing the 17-year-old law banning gays from serving openly in the military, but he publicly supported that position before ever discussing it with his service chiefs, some of whom do not want to change the law quickly.
Still, experts note that even with that issue, the actual path to a repeal is a one-year review period followed by a unknown implementation period, a slower pace than hoped for by gay rights advocates but one Gates himself said will help show the military the pros and cons of the move.