Ex-General Declares Total War on Defense Secretary
Defense Secretary Robert Gates came into the Pentagon like C.C. Sabathia entered Yankee Stadium. Not only did he help revitalize a military beaten down by Iraq, Afghanistan and Donald Rumsfeld, he focused on fundamentals, like slashing seemingly-permanent waste. Accordingly, he’s gotten a lot of good press, ourselves definitely included. So it falls to Charlie Dunlap — a pal of ours, an iconoclast and a retired Air Force two-star general — to say that Gates, like CC, is more fat than muscle.
In a guest post on Tom Ricks’ Foreign Policy blog today, Dunlap circles the defense secretary’s office and drops bombs until the rubble bounces. Think Gates responsibly reoriented the Pentagon to support the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Actually, he’s irresponsibly ignoring future threats like China, Dunlap argues. Think Gates bravely challenged the military’s generals not to live so high on the hog? Actually, he’s a hypocrite who goes yachting on the Potomac at taxpayer expense. Think Gates ended Donald Rumsfeld’s culture of military conformity? Actually, he gives dissenters the sack and executes a vendetta against the Air Force.
That just scratches the surface of how caustic and personal Dunlap’s critique is. Dunlap derides Gates’ CIA background as a way of arguing that he easily bamboozles people. “He also collected a huge $525,000 compensation package from taxpayer-supported Texas A & M University,” Dunlap writes. “I’m sure he earned it, but shouldn’t a general’s warfighting insights that might save someone’s son or daughter be as valued as overseeing Aggie football prospects?” That’s the Pentagon equivalent of Jim Jones and Cam’ron’s unexpectedly brutal attack on Kanye West.
It’s true that Gates has fired a lot of top brass since taking office in 2007: General Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff; Major General George W. Weightman, commander of Walter Reed Army Medical Center; Admiral William Fallon, Central Command chief; Major General David Heinz, head of the Joint Strike Fighter program — we could be here all day. So perhaps what’s most surprising about Dunlap’s piece that no other officer wrote it sooner. There’s been no “Revolt of the Generals” of the sort that Rumsfeld faced in 2006 from ex-officers who wanted him fired. And unlike Rumsfeld, Gates has actively attacked “brass creep,” making the provocative case that the military has too many useless generals.
But Dunlap, a career military lawyer, is the opposite of a conventional general. Back when he was a major in 1992, Dunlap became (in)famous because of an essay, “The Origins of the Military Coup of 2012,” which used a sci-fi trope to argue that the armed forces’ drift into traditionally civilian activities like disaster relief augured a disaster in civil-military relations. The concept of non-state actors using national or international laws as weapons against more-powerful adversaries? Dunlap invented it. When counterinsurgency theory became all the rage in military circles, Dunlap fired back with a monograph, “Shortchanging The Joint Fight,” that accused its advocates of sacrificing the military services’ ability to work together on the altar of a marginal form of warfare.
Depending on who you ask, Dunlap is either a few fighters short of a squadron or one of the Air Force’s most strategic thinkers — someone brave or buck-wild enough to publicly confront Pentagon orthodoxy. But Dunlap isn’t an officer anymore: he decamped for Duke Law School in June after spending the last few years in the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s office.
Conspicuously, Dunlap only obliquely attacks Gates’s big, legacy-defining project: getting rid of billions in Pentagon bloat, a task that’s led him to axe a ton of programs, including the Air Force’s beloved F-22 fighter jet. Dunlap’s post doesn’t have anything to say about the effort as a whole. Instead, he goes after Gates for “indulging near-term wants (and perceived needs) at the expense of long-term strategic interests,” buying MRAPs and unmanned drones while China modernizes its military — a challenge which just so conveniently dovetails with the Air Force’s arguments for more money. “Today’s thinking about defense spending is hobbled by the Pentagon’s inability to distinguish sufficiently between the serious challenge of irregular wars, and the need to deter truly existential threats posed by nation-states,” Dunlap accuses.
And that exposes Dunlap to a countercharge: that his beef with Gates is really just Air Force and general-officer parochialism. China’s military budget is growing, but it’s about $78 billion; ours is over $700 billion. Not only does Dunlap sidestep an argument about the appropriate size of the Pentagon budget, he doesn’t make a case about how “serious” the challenge of today’s “irregular wars” really are. (The closest he comes there is a vague prediction that the surge will fail in Afghanistan, compelling the Obama administration to enact Vice President Biden’s “Counterterrorism Plus” strategy as a fallback.) That makes it fairly easy for both men to talk past one another.
I left messages with Dunlap for this post but haven’t heard back. (Gates’s spokesman, Geoff Morrell, declined to comment.) I’ll update when I get replies or when others join the fray. Dunlap probably speaks for more than just himself on this one.