Why did Defense Secretary Robert Gates wait until his farewell tour to start saying so many sensible things?

In one of the last stops of the tour, Gates appeared in Iraq, where the U.S. has made great progress in helping build an Iraq that can govern and protect itself. Despite Monday’s tragic event (a series of deadly bombings killed five Americans and 13 Iraqis), it’s worth noting that the Iraqi government has weathered the Arab Spring far better than many nearby authoritarian regimes that have stood for decades. Gates was right to propose that U.S. military stay and help finish the job.

The secretary also sounded the right notes in his recent visit to Afghanistan, where he warned against pulling out too quickly. With SEAL Team Six finishing Usama bin Laden and the Taliban advances being turned back, now is not the time go all “small-print” wimpy. 

When the enemy is down, that’s the time to put the pedal to the metal, not back off and give the bad guys a chance to get back in the game.

Gates was even on message as he criticized a resolution that would have required the U.S. to pull out of the Libya operation. Regardless of what one thinks of the operation, walking away from allies in combat is not smart. It would have been completely irresponsible to withdraw support from allies that are in harm’s way. Many NATO nations stood, fought and died with American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing should be done to suggest that America would precipitously abandon its allies. Fortunately, on Friday the House passed a resolution that did not outright abandon our NATO allies. 

Finally, Gates has been wisely been warning about how under-funding defense could “hollow out” the military. That is a real concern. When the services do not have enough to pay for current operations; maintain a trained and ready force; and prepare for the future all at the same time—the armed forces rot from underneath. Readiness slips. Units look okay on paper but not in practice. This is exactly what happened after the Vietnam War, and we are on track to see that dismal condition again.

In fact, the secretary’s farewell declaration that the “low-hanging fruit” has been plucked was more than an understatement. 

Even before Gates dropped acquisition programs right and left, arguably the processes of buying new ships, planes and vehicles was being under-funded by $50 billion a year. The military has cut so deep into procurement that it is pretty much wasting its money on research and development. The Army, for example, is now spending $4 billion a year on developing programs that just get cancelled. That’s right -- $4 billion a year to buy nothing. The Pentagon must get back into the business of buying equipment.

Too bad this Secretary Gates was absent almost his whole term at the Pentagon. Gates surely knew that the day of reckoning was coming. He knew that reckless fiscal policies were going to prompt Congress to turn on the defense budget. He knew that foreign policy fatigue was going to settle over lawmakers. He knew that the closer Obama got to the reelection cycle, the more the president would offer bogus political ploys -- such as an arbitrary $400 billion defense cut to help “balance” the budget.
Gates know that even if whacking defense did help reduce the deficit, the effect would be only temporary. Eventually, rising entitlement costs will more than overwhelm any cuts in discretionary spending. The secretary knows that more cuts are only going to make America less safe.
He knew all that -- and he did nothing serious about it, or even speak out on his watch. He’s just reminding everyone that the sky is falling as walks out the door.
Gates has left a disaster in his wake, a military where the wheels are going to start falling off.
Of course, Gates did not suggest any missions to drop—and for a good a reason. Whether it’s China, al Qaeda, Iran, cybersecurity or other dangers, there are no threats we can just drop. Gates knows that.
Goodbye, Mr. Secretary. Too bad you couldn’t have been more honest before now.

James Jay Carafano is Deputy Director, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.