Oprah v. Gates: The Long Goodbye

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Oprah Winfrey recently concluded her farewell tour as America’s most popular television talk show. Her exit from the show spanned two calendar years, with the farewell season beginning in September 2010.

After heading the Department of Defense for four and a half years, Robert Gates seems intent on following Oprah’s lead. For months now, the Defense Secretary has hit the road, delivering numerous speeches as part of his long goodbye.

Nor does it look like Gates will be avoiding the limelight for too long after exiting office. This week he said he would embark on a book promotion tour once he stepped down from his Pentagon gig (after writing not one but two upcoming books).

Of course, if anyone has lots to talk about, it’s Gates. As he told Politico:

“I will have been in the job longer than all but four of my predecessors — [Robert] McNamara, [Donald] Rumsfeld, [Caspar Weinberger] and Charles E. Wilson. The country will have been at war — in two wars — every single day that I was secretary of Defense.… I have been the secretary of defense longer than the Civil War lasted, longer than World War II lasted. And I’ve dealt with a Republican administration, and a Democratic administration. I’ve dealt with a Democratic Congress. I’ve dealt with a mixed Congress.…  I think I have some interesting things to say.”

But we don’t need to wait for the book to learn interesting things about Gates. Indeed, he encourages those who want to know more about him to read his speeches verrrry closely.  “As an old Soviet analyst, I read the speeches of their leaders very, very carefully,” he told NEWSWEEK. “And people should read my speeches very carefully.”  

He’s right. At a recent speech at AEI, Gates sounded more like an observer to the last four years as opposed to the man in charge of the entire United States military.

Gates discussed the fact that today’s military is largely living off the capital invested over 20 years ago by President Reagan. The military’s equipment is increasingly old and worn down from a decade of warfare. And he concluded by saying defense spending on new equipment, weapons systems, and technology is absolutely essential — even as defense budgets are set to decline.

Indeed, Gates warned his successor and the entire nation that they must choose carefully when asking the military to contribute ever more to deficit reduction:

“We must build a new tanker.  The ones we have are twice as old as many of the pilots flying them. 

“We must field a next generation strike fighter — the F-35 — and at a cost that permits large enough numbers to replace the current fighter inventory and maintain a healthy margin of superiority over the Russians and Chinese.

“We must build more ships — in recent years, the size of the Navy fleet has sunk to the lowest number since before World War II, and will get smaller as more Reagan-era vessels reach the end of their service life.

“We must recapitalize the ground forces — the Army and Marines — whose combat vehicles and helicopters are worn down after a decade of war.

“And at some point we must replace our ballistic missile submarines — a program that illustrates the modernization dilemmas we face.” 

If only he’d said these things publicly when Congress was debating  a “whopping $787 billion “stimulus” bill that contained not a dime to modernize and buy equipment for the military.” Or, while the administration ordered $78 billion from his budget last year. Or, when it demanded another $400 billion in cuts this year.