So before the argument, the caveats. These sorts of judgments are more appropriate for historians than for journalists. But I’m in that kind of mood. And I don’t do nearly enough hackish listicles. The other, related caveat — and it’s a major one, as we’ll soon see — is that what looks like foresight in the present can look dangerously poor a few years down the road. So in, say, 2025, get at me and call me stupid for writing this post.
The argument starts after the jump, so click that Read More button…
First, the negative case. Have you noticed how most defense secretaries — well, sucked? I fully concede up front my history on a bunch of these guys is shaky. But even before we start a ranking system, we see that we’re dealing with a lot of nonentities-on-the-Potomac. Les Aspin. (If we’re doing this, you’re damn right we’re boldfacing names [like we won the cham-pion-ship game...]) Louis Johnson. Unfortunately — he was a great man and this just wasn’t the job for him! — George Marshall. [Update: I did not mean to suggest for a second that one of the greatest statesmen in American history was a "nonentity," just that this wasn't the job for Marshall.] Bill Cohen. Elliot Richardson. Whoever Eisenhower’s defense secretaries were. You see where I’m going with this. Here’s a SecDef history page so you can play along. For most of the history of the Pentagon — especially pre-Goldwater Nichols — the job was nowhere near as powerful as it seemed. The services, and the service secretaries, were strong, independent and parochial. Strategy was — horrors! — often driven by powerful secretaries of state.
Then we get to the middle tier, the secretaries who did a good-enough management job or who had to dig out of some serious messes. Your Clark Cliffords. Frank Carlucci Mane. Donald Rumsfeld The First Time. I would put Melvin Laird and Harold Brown here, because Vietnamization could have gone a lot worse in Laird’s case & Laird established the All-Volunteer Force and both Laird and Brown did some decent arms-control management, and you should probably credit Brown with the MX. [Update: After being named-n-shamed by New America's Jeffrey Lewis, I'm moving George Marshall, one of the greatest statesmen in American history, into this category, owing to his aid to Truman in cashiering Douglas MacArthur.]
Of course, there are the total disasters. The men who played central roles in disastrous wars. Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld The Second Time The Second Time. I’m not going to belabor the point.
Top tier are people who did a generally farsighted job or who made a big impact on the department — people who could really give Gates competition. I am not saying I approve of what these guys did. You have to put James Schlesinger, Bill Perry, Caspar Weinberger and — I truly can’t believe I’m writing this — Dick Cheney in this category. Schlesinger because he did arms control stuff while trying to think his way out of Mutual Assured Destruction. (Hmm, maybe Laird really does belong here.) Perry because he started to give thought to non-state actors and loose nuclear material as a central concern of post-Cold War defense. Weinberger because the Reagan defense build-up was a central event in the life of the Pentagon and so was Goldwater-Nichols — but the Weinberger Doctrine of overwhelming force proved to be obsolete-to-detrimental half a decade after Weinberger left office. Cheney because of the Gulf War (though there’s a critique of his handling of it to be aired) and because of his ability to shrink the Army as the Soviet empire disintegrated. But if these guys still seem like they’re a bit B-team-ish…
… it might be because Mr. Gates is in the building, and his swagger is a hundred thousand trillion. Helps the U.S. dig its way out of a disastrous war. Reinvigorates a relationship with the Army — ironically, by firing people over Walter Reed and re-establishing accountability. Fired the leadership of the Air Force over nuclear insecurity. Pushed through one of the bravest defense budgets ever. Embraces the concept of full-spectrum operations as a central principle for organizing the U.S. force posture, which gets us away — finally — from outdated and wasteful modes of Big State-On-State conflict while making the most plausible argument yet for addressing the hybrid (insurgencies, cyberattack) conflicts we’re most likely to face. Expends political capital trying to make the Defense Department less central to U.S. foreign policy, emphasizing the dire need for development and diplomacy to occupy that space — something that no defense secretary has done. Revamps U.S. strategy to address Afghanistan in a very cautious and rigorous manner. Might be the most Gangster bureaucratic infighter and a universally respected bipartisan figure. If Bob Gates seems like a trick — well, it ain’t tricking if you got it.
So who else measures up? I recognize, again, that it’s pretty dumb to render a verdict on Robert Gates’ tenure before it ends. But if we take Jay-Z’s advice that you can’t change a player’s game in the ninth inning, I contend that the record shows his trajectory puts him on course to be the best. If Afghanistan becomes a total failure, then obviously this will change, and that’s a big if, but Gates’ intellectual suppleness and lack of ideological rigidity suggests that if things start to go really bad, he’ll be the one to most vigorously and successfully argue for a Plan B — or to argue for urgent action to prevent a disaster.
This is written to a) start an argument, and b) annoy Josh Foust. It is not written to kiss Gates’ ass, because I’m still going to enjoy poor access to Gates after I hit Publish and because the exercise of thinking this through just plain appeals to me. If you don’t believe me, there’s nothing I can do about that. I concede it’s better for journalists to be generally biased to an oppositional attitude to those they cover. But it’s kind of weird as a journalistic convention for it to be OK for me to cover Rumsfeld and constantly write how much he sucked but not to cover Gates and point out that he’s good at his job. In any event, argue with me, because I’m trying to start an argument.
Update: Jeffrey Lewis reminds me about Marshall’s involvement in Truman’s decision to fire MacArthur. I humbly move him out of the flameout column.
Update 2: You know, fair enough to Michael Cohen — I misattributed Colin Powell’s ‘overwhelming force’ corollary to Casper Weinberger’s doctrine. Appreciate the correction.