Gates Shares Insights From Years of Service
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
A U.S. MILITARY BASE IN SOUTHWEST ASIA, March 11, 2010 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has served eight presidents, and he shared some of his insights into that experience today with U.S. servicemembers here.
Gates spoke to members of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing and attached units during a town hall-style meeting, and provided his insights when a sergeant asked him about differences he’s noticed while serving two presidents as defense secretary.
Gates served in the Air Force in 1967 and then went into the Central Intelligence Agency, where he rose to be the director of central intelligence. During that time, he also served at the National Security Council.
“I’ve worked for eight presidents, and I’ve known seven of them,” Gates said. “One thing that always struck me is I don’t think the American people really appreciate how much every single one of them gives of himself to the country.”
People can agree or disagree with the politics of the presidents, the secretary said, but “every single president I’ve worked for has made decisions on the basis of what he thought was best for the country, and not for his electoral prospects, regardless of what commentators on the outside say. I’ve watched them.”
The same is true of President Barack Obama, Gates said. He acknowledged the president had not served in the military, but said he does not see that as a handicap. Most of the presidents who had served were young when they were in the military, he noted, and weren’t in a position to broadly view the Defense Department or the world. Most of the presidents who were in the military, he added, left the service when they still were at a junior level.
“So there’s really nothing that can prepare a president for the responsibilities that he has in terms of ordering men and women to war,” Gates said. “And it’s as true of [former President] George H.W. Bush, who was a decorated veteran, as it is of those who haven’t served at all.”
Each commander in chief takes his military responsibility seriously, “and it weighs on every single one of them,” Gates said.
The secretary noted that the nation has been in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for his entire tenure as defense secretary. “I don’t think anything prepares you for that,” he said, “whether you are the secretary or the president.”
Each president has a deep sense of obligation to servicemembers, the secretary said. “I must say in the case of President Obama, this is a president who in the last 14 months as ordered 62,000 more Americans into Afghanistan,” he said. “If that’s not someone behaving like a wartime president, I don’t know what is.”
In answer to another question, Gates also defended Congress. Differences exist in the legislative branch about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he acknowledged. But when it comes to supporting men and women in uniform and giving them the equipment they need, he said, “Congress has voted every single dollar I’ve asked it for, and in some cases, more.”
The secretary pointed to the speedy fielding of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles as an example of congressional support.
“The Congress voted every dollar I’ve asked them to,” said Gates, noting there are 15,000 regular MRAPs now in theater. “We’re going to get about 6,000 or 7,000 more of the vehicles adapted for Afghanistan,” he added.
The MRAP program “was never in the budget,” Gates continued, and it “was never in the future-year defense plan.”
The Congress, the secretary said, voted “more than $30 billion to protect the lives and limbs of American men and women in uniform.”
“So, [give] credit where credit is due,” he said.”
Gates said he thinks Americans have learned at least one lesson from the U.S. experience in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s: the Congress and the American people have been able since then to differentiate between their views on the war and on the warrior.
“The good news is there’s just tremendous support for the warrior, and for veterans as well,” he said.