Globe Editorial

Congress, Pentagon must heed Gates’s words of caution

Defense Secretary Robert Gates walks in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates walks in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. (Associated Press)
March 1, 2011

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CERTAIN KINDS of public candor are so unexpected that they have the shock value of a gunshot at the opera. So it was last week when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared to cadets at West Point: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.’’

This was far more than a blunt indictment of Gates’ predecessor Donald Rumsfeld; it was also a lament for the stresses that land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have imposed on the armed services, and an acknowledgement that the constraints — budgetary and otherwise — on the use of US military power abroad are increasingly evident. The Pentagon and both parties in Congress should take his warning to heart.

There are high political barriers to openly acknowledging limits on US military capabilities. Most Republicans have been quick to treat any reevaluation of the nation’s military commitments as a threat to national security; for their part, most Democratic leaders are wary of being seen as weak on defense or disrespectful to the armed services.

But Gates has the latitude to be an exception — the manager of the defense establishment who recognizes that neither its capacities nor its budget are, or should be, limitless. He served as an Air Force intelligence officer in the 1960s, rose from an entry-level CIA position to become director, and was originally hired as defense secretary by George W. Bush. While the Obama administration values him for his credibility with Republicans, his freedom to speak freely is at least as relevant.

As the nature of coming conflicts changes, Gates reasoned, the Army’s ways of training and promoting officers must change. He encouraged the officers of tomorrow to explore innovative career paths: go to grad school, learn languages, study other cultures. He spoke of a need to reduce the numbers of generals and admirals, to value dissident views more than careerist conformism, and to base promotions on the evaluations of peers and subordinates as well as a candidate’s superiors.

If Gates retires later this year, as he has said he will, President Obama ought to look hard for a successor with some of Gates’s unusual leadership qualities. As the nation tries to wind down two arduous wars and gain control of yawning budget deficits, it’s crucial to have a defense secretary who’s willing to confront the facts.