Pentagon Chief Plans To Retire Next Year

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he wants to leave office next year. It wasn't a definite announcement of retirement, but rather a wish he expressed to journalist Fred Kaplan. In a profile published in the current issue of Foreign Policy Kaplan calls Gates "revolutionary."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he wants to leave office next year. This was not a definite announcement of retirement, but rather a wish he expressed to journalist Fred Kaplan.

Now, questions about when Gates leaves office have overshadowed, to some extent, news of what Gates has actually done in office. In a profile published in the current issue of Foreign Policy, journalist Fred Kaplan calls Gates revolutionary.

Mr. FRED KAPLAN (Journalist, "Foreign Policy"): Gates has not just supervised, but I think accelerated and encouraged the shift in policy of today's military, away from what used to be called major combat operations. Like, you know, a big war against the Soviet Union in Europe, to ones of asymmetrical conflicts against rogue states and insurgents. And yet, you know, he fully understands that his legacy will be measured by the outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about what you say here. When you talk about transforming the military, it seems like almost every military expert has been saying, for about 20 years, that this is what the United States needs to do -including Donald Rumsfeld, Gates' predecessor as Defense secretary.

Whats so revolutionary about Gates saying these things?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, Rumsfeld said it. He cancelled two weapons systems, one of which the Army didnt want anyway. Gates has cancelled, substantially trimmed or restructured, 33 weapons system - including some things that were very precious to the more traditional wings of the military. For example, the F-22 Fighter, the future combat systems of the Army, the DDG-1000 destroyer of the Navy.

He also called in General Petraeus, back from the battlefield in Iraq, to head the Army promotion board. There were a number of very creative colonels who were not being advanced in their career, who were being stalled because the traditional Army generals on the promotion board weren't promoting them.

He stacked the promotion board, as a result of which, about 20 of these colonels, some of whom who'd been passed over twice, were promoted. And this kind of thing, Steve, sends a tremendous signal down to the rest of the force.

INSKEEP: And so he has actually tried to enact the reforms that other people have talked about, but not quite done?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, it's very interesting. You know, he only had two years in the Bush administration. He realized time was short. He started giving a lot of speeches. These were meant as speeches to lay an agenda for the next secretary of defense, and then he became a secretary of defense and he's actually done quite a lot in carrying out that agenda - with President Obama's complete backing, by the way.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about another part of Gates' legacy, the one that you say will overshadow all of his other accomplishments, whatever they may be. And it's the results of - whatever they might be - of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You write about how Gates came to change his mind about what the United States should be doing in Afghanistan right now.

Mr. KAPLAN: That's right. Early on in the Obama administration, he said at his own confirmation hearings, that he would be very skeptical of requests for a large number of extra troops in Afghanistan. You know, one of the most searing experiences in his own career was a deputy director of the CIA, watching the Soviet empire collapse in the quagmire of Afghanistan.

He said if it looks we are an occupying force then we will go the way of other imperial occupiers. That summer - the summer of 2009 - he started reading a lot of articles, one of which was a piece in the Weekly Standard by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, which made the case that we are not like the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Soviets killed about a million people, forced five million into exile, basically destroyed the country. We're not into that.

At the same time, Gates had just hired Stanley McChrystal, who was talking about counterinsurgency, protecting the population. And so by the time President Obama starts these senior National Security Council meetings on what to do in Afghanistan, Gates had shifted ground. Gates had become an advocate of sending a lot more troops.

And I speculate - and it can only be speculation - that if he had retained the skepticism that he'd had earlier that year, it's quite possible that the consensus would have leaned toward a smaller footprint and a less ambitious strategy.

INSKEEP: I wonder if everything then, depends - whether it's his future reputation or his efforts to reform the military - everything depends on whether this effort that he has backed in Afghanistan succeed or fails.

Mr. KAPLAN: I don't know about everything. There will be a legacy to some of the things that he's done. But yeah, absolutely. This is a war that he has come to own in the same sense that any war has been any defense secretary's. And, yes, he realizes that a lot rides on this, both for the country and for him.

INSKEEP: Frank, good talking with you.

Mr. KAPLAN: Good, thank you.

INSKEEP: You can find a link to Frank Kaplan's article about Defense Secretary Robert Gates at NPR.org.

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