Is Gates’ Success Overstated?

The defense secretary, who has cast himself as a reformer, has racked up accolades on his farewell tour and ripped into NATO for stinginess. But as he nears retirement, his accomplishments at the Pentagon appear modest.

06.21.11 2:01 AM ET

A former CIA director who has worked in government for decades, Robert Gates is a company man in a one-industry town. But during his 4 1/2 years as defense secretary, he built a reputation for being an unlikely crusader.

Now, as he heads toward retirement at the end of the month, Gates is determined to make a final splash. He railed against bureaucracy at a speech in Washington last month, told Newsweek in an interview that Americans, however “war-weary,” should stay the course in Afghanistan and ripped into NATO nations (for being stingy) in a speech delivered in Brussels.

His farewell tour has paid off in burnishing his legacy. The Washington Post  described the speech as “one of the harshest addresses in a four-year tenure as secretary replete with blunt talk,” and others have celebrated his courage.

His tour of Asia and Europe “highlights the great things about America,” wrote The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who boasted Gates’ tenure “took on sacred weapons programs at the Pentagon, fired ineffective generals, won the surge in Iraq, revived a crumbling war effort in Afghanistan, and got Osama bin Laden.”

That’s not all.

Gates has battled “bureaucratic inertia and institutional rot in the Pentagon,” as an Aerospace Daily & Defense Report writer put it. And Gates is now, according to syndicated columnist Michael Gerson, “waging his final war”—against shortsighted individuals in Washington who are trying to gouge crucial defense programs.

Gates has embraced the role of rebel. He made it clear to his bosses that he would give the Brussels speech, for instance, only if he could be “edgy,” he told Newsweek. For years, as he said in a speech last month at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, “I ran up against institutional obstacles in the Pentagon—cultural, procedural, ideological—to getting done what needed to get done.”

The laurels from journalists and his own image-polishing aside, the truth about Gates’ tenure as defense secretary is more complicated. To be sure, he boosted morale at the Defense Department shortly after he started his job and fostered a sense of reality in the workplace, both of which had been in short supply under his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

“He inherited a fairly dysfunctional agency,” says Michael Noonan of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, adding, “He got rid of some of the hubris that was emanating from certain offices of the DOD.”

Aside from vanquishing Rumsfeld, though, Gates’ accomplishments seem modest. Indeed, being a revolutionary, particularly within a federal bureaucracy, is a noble calling, but casting Gates in that role may be a bit of a stretch.

Paul Pillar, a former deputy chief of the CIA’s counterterrorist center, says Gates has cast himself as “a crusading reformer,” both within the public and private sector. At the CIA, says Pillar, “he never really belonged to it.” And as president of Texas A&M University in the early 2000s, says Pillar, Gates bragged about being “an agent of change. That’s what people like to hear.”

As defense secretary, Gates also says he shook things up, getting rid of 30 defense programs over a two-year period and saving roughly $300 billion. Yet defense analysts disagree: Some programs have been cut, but Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments told Newsweek and The Daily Beast that the programs were having problems and were “low-hanging fruit.”

Gates’ approach to the wars also troubles some. “We are now leaving Iraq, but we have no picture of what our posture will be in Iraq or in the region,” says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We won tactically, but we do not have a picture of what the strategic outcome of the war will be.”

Still, even detractors acknowledge that Gates had his hands full, with two wars going on simultaneously. He managed to juggle a challenging workload and foster good relations among officials at various agencies. People at the CIA and the Defense Department worked together more effectively under Gates, for instance, and one of the results of their close cooperation was the raid on Abbottabad that led to Osama bin Laden’s killing.

Gates also went after the F-22, “a fighter that was costing $350 million apiece, with parts being made in 43 states,” says Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Michael Noonan. “You would think this would be a politically unkillable weapons system.” Gates cut back on production of the F-22, though, and helped to save taxpayer dollars.

Gates believes that this is a critical year for Afghanistan. As he told Newsweek, “We took away all of the Taliban’s heartland, and if they can’t take it back, and we further expand the security bubble, then, just like the sheikhs in Anbar who came to the conclusion that, ‘We cannot beat you’”—a reference to the Sunnis in Iraq’s Anbar province who cooperated with Americans—then the Taliban will also “come to the table.”

Yet this approach, say Pillar and other critics, is misguided; Americans should instead be drawing down forces. And negotiating with the Taliban is hardly a guaranteed path to success.

Regardless of how one feels about Afghanistan, it is hard to make a case that Gates has been a transformative figure in the military during a difficult economic crisis.

Most notably, he leaves behind much unfinished business to his successor, Leon Panetta. Chief on the list: how to exit Afghanistan gracefully and where to trim the bloated defense budget.