Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ commencement address this past weekend at the University of Notre Dame was one of a series of farewell speeches he will be giving as he steps down as Pentagon head next month. It will be the swan song not only for his tenure as secretary of defense but also for his four decades of public service in numerous administrations, Democrat and Republican.
The speech at South Bend was both remarkable and not-so-remarkable. It was not remarkable in the sense that it was fully in line with America’s post-World War II view of the place of military might in the country’s grand strategy. Gates took note of the many threats and security concerns we face today—Afghanistan, the Middle East, new rising powers, Iran and North Korea, and terrorism—and the value of “hard power” as “the ultimate guarantee against the success of aggressors, dictators, and terrorists in the 21st century, as in the 20th,” and the role of the United States as “the indispensable” nation in keeping peace and sustaining the international order. Although these points were succinctly and well put, the speech itself was one that any number of previous defense secretaries might have given.
What was remarkable about the address, however, is that it comes at a time when there are calls from both the Left and the Right, in Gates’ words, “to shrink America’s role in the world.” And even more remarkable is Secretary Gates’ willingness (albeit obliquely) to push back against the Obama administration’s decision to cut defense spending even more deeply than it already has, with the result of backing us into a lessened role in the world and forgoing benefits that accrue to having a military second-to-none. And while the secretary says that “all of these things happen mostly out of sight and out of mind to the average American, and thus are taken for granted,” he could just as easily be pointing the finger at the White House itself.
To be sure, Gates appears to have been of two minds when it comes to calls for defense cuts. Last year at this time, in a speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, the secretary said that the past decade had “opened up gusher in defense spending” and argued that the military had a surfeit especially of air and naval power. But then, just six months later, in November, when the chairmen of the president’s deficit commission put forward the idea of cutting $100 billion from the defense budget by 2015, he argued that even a 10 percent cut would do little to alleviate the problem of the federal deficit but would in fact be “catastrophic” to the military. One can’t help but think that, with those remarks and his address at Notre Dame, there is a bit of Gates’ attempting to close the barn door [to cutting defense] after that horse has already left.
Tomorrow, the secretary will be here at AEI. And the question is: was the Notre Dame address the prologue to a more detailed critique of what further cuts to defense will do to the nation’s security and its global role? Or will the secretary let his speech at South Bend stand as his final statement on the defense debate—useful, no doubt, but not explicit enough to be memorable.