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Gates as Pentagon Change Agent: Low-key, but Crucial

Soon-to-retire Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Photo: Defense.gov

When Robert M. Gates was named defense secretary at the end of 2006, the former CIA chief was thrust into the midst of the debate about sending more troops to quell the insurgency in Iraq.

Now, after serving longer in his Pentagon post than all but four of his predecessors and as the the nation confronts similar calculations in Afghanistan, Gates is preparing to step down at the end of the month.

And while he says he never intended to shake up Pentagon culture, that’s just what many say Gates has done.

In a recent American Forces Press Service report, Gates said by the end of 2008, there were “broader issues that needed to be addressed by my successor.” But when then-President-elect Barack Obama asked him to stay on — a historic first — Gates, in effect, became his own successor.

“So that really teed up the agenda, once I was given renewed lease to begin tackling these broader issues,” Gates put it.

Meanwhile, Gates’ current successor, CIA Director Leon Panetta, was confirmed by the Senate last week.

One of the biggest challenges Gates faced was the Pentagon’s finances, or as AFPS described it, “10 years of having an open checkbook.”

Gates said he knew it was bound to “slam shut,” especially after the 2008 economic crisis.

“It seemed to me that in order to preserve the money for current needs and future modernization, we had to be very disciplined about looking at the programs that we had,” Gates said and questioned whether the programs were working and still made sense.

This philosophy led to the cost-saving measures known as the department’s efficiency initiatives.

Then, in April, the White House directed the Pentagon to cut an additional $400 billion in national security spending over the next 12 years.

Gates, who ordered a comprehensive review to determine the cuts, said he was adamant that further cost-cutting would take into account lessons of the past.

“I am determined that we will not repeat what we did in the 1970s and, to a lesser extent, in the 1990s, which is across-the-board cuts that end up hollowing out the force,” he said.

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