Robert Gates says military must remain strong

Jeff Fox

America must remain militarily strong and diplomatically nimble even as it cuts spending with the winding down of two long wars, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Thursday.

Gates, speaking at the annual “Wild About Harry” gala in Kansas City, Mo., praised the courage and determination of Harry Truman in making the decisions after World War II that greatly shaped the world for decades, including aid to rebuild Europe, the formation of NATO and aid to keep Greece and Turkey from falling to communists as the Cold War began to take shape.

But Gates said the rapid drawdown of U.S. forces after the war –– from 12 million men in uniform to 1.5 million, from $91 billion in defense spending in 1945 to $10 billion in 1947 –– was too drastic and almost proved disastrous when the Korean War came in 1950 and the U.S. found itself poorly equipped and prepared.

“That’s a mistake I fear we may make again,” Gates said.

As when the Korean and Vietnam wars came to their inconclusive ends, he said, Gates sees America looking at the recent war in Iraq and the winding down of fighting in Afghanistan with a mixture of relief, exhaustion and a determination not be drawn into future conflicts –– but he added that events don’t always play out that way. The U.S. faces threats from terrorists, rogue nations and others in an increasingly complex world, he said.

Gates spent 26 years with the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council and then, under President George H.W. Bush, was named CIA director. In 2006, he became secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, and President Barack Obama asked him to stay on when he took office. Gates did, serving until about a year ago.

Gates had high praise for Truman and said he consistently exhibited the traits of successful leaders, including a steady self-confidence and, fundamentally, a sense of common decency.

He quoted Truman as saying, “The true acid test of a leader is how he treats those who can’t talk back.”

Gates also decried the polarization of politics in Washington that over time drives from office “the very people in both parties you could depend on in the past to bridge the partisan divide.”

Even in the highly partisan atmosphere in the years after World War II, Gates noted, Truman was able to win support from both parties for important foreign policy goals, but he said that era has faded.

“It is hard to see we’re a better country for it,” he said.