The Defense Rests
Barry, John, McKelvey, Tara, Newsweek
Byline: John Barry and Tara McKelvey
As Robert Gates retires from the Pentagon top job, he sounds a grim warning: America is losing its grip.
Aboard the Pentagon jet on his last foreign trip as secretary of defense, Robert Gates takes a moment to peer across the American horizon--and the view is dire: the U.S. is in danger of losing its supremacy on the global stage, he says.
"I've spent my entire adult life with the United States as a superpower, and one that had no compunction about spending what it took to sustain that position," he tells NEWSWEEK, seated in the strategic communications center of the Boeing E-4B. "It didn't have to look over its shoulder because our economy was so strong. This is a different time."
"To tell you the truth, that's one of the many reasons it's time for me to retire, because frankly I can't imagine being part of a nation, part of a government -- that's being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world."
Such a statement--rather astonishing for the leader of the world's preeminent fighting force--may open the administration to charges of not believing in American exceptionalism, an opening the GOP is already trying to exploit. But these days Gates is less worried about political crossfire and more focused on the legacy of his own tenure, which bridged the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
He is determined to define his own legacy as Pentagon boss, and eager to push back against one of the more vocal criticisms of his tenure: the belief among many liberals and some conservative budget hawks that in a time of deep indebtedness, he hasn't been willing to chop enough of a defense budget bloated by a decade of war.
Don't expect him to apologize. In Gates's mind, it's other political leaders with less experience who are confused.
"Congress is all over the place," Gates says at one point. "And the Republicans are a perfect example. I mean, you've got the budget hawks and then you've got the defense hawks within the same party. And so I think there is no consensus on a role in the world."
In some ways, the first part of his tenure was easier. During the Bush years, money was never an issue. By contrast, Obama faced a harsh economic reality, and Gates tried to get in front of the issue by shrinking the Pentagon budget. But his cuts satisfied neither hawks nor doves nor the White House. This spring, when Obama announced a $400 billion reduction in defense spending, Gates got just 24 hours' notice.
Gates, who'll be succeeded by CIA chief Leon Panetta, wins bipartisan accolades for restoring morale at the Pentagon and, more important, repairing relations with Congress, which had grown distrustful of the Defense Department under Rumsfeld.
Bridging two administrations, Gates gets credit for stabilizing Iraq, though the key decisions that led to success--a surge of troops and the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus to oversee the strategy--predated his arrival.
Petraeus says Gates knew that his real contribution was to buy time in Washington for the strategy to succeed. " 'Your battle space is Iraq. My battle space is Washington,' " Petraeus recalls Gates telling him.
Gates concedes he was sometimes on the wrong side of an issue. For instance, he was gun-shy about using ground troops to kill Osama bin Laden, arguing that Obama should opt for an airstrike instead. Gates hesitated because he feared a repeat of the bungled 1980 attempt to free American hostages in Iran that killed eight U.S. servicemen. "I was very explicit with the president in one of the discussions," Gates acknowledges. "I said: 'Mr. President, I want truth in lending. Because of experience, I may be too cautious, you know. …