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What Robert Gates Leaves Behind

How successful was Robert Gates as defence secretary? Top Asia analysts assess key US military relationships in the region, and look at the challenges facing his successor.


Weeks after President George W. Bush tapped Robert Gates to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defence, Gates paid a visit to Kabul to assess the war effort. It was obvious, he concluded, that the war in Iraq was sucking up all of the oxygen at the Pentagon, and that more US troops were needed in Afghanistan. During the next two years, until the election of President Barack Obama, Gates worked hard to draw down US forces in Iraq, consolidate the divergence in US and NATO commands in Afghanistan, and accelerate plans to beef up the Afghan army and police. All of that, it turned out, coincided with Obama’s own view that Iraq was a mistake but that Afghanistan was ‘the good war.’

In the year before Obama took office, Gates pressed NATO hard – often to the irritation of senior NATO officials and European leaders – to commit more troops and money to the war in Afghanistan. For Gates, Afghanistan was a test of NATO’s ability to work together, and he warned that unless NATO went all in, the alliance’s very existence was at stake. ‘We must not – we cannot – become a two-tiered alliance of those willing to fight and those who are not,’ he told a security conference in Munich. ‘Such a development, with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance.’

Indeed, for Gates the war in Afghanistan was a kind of experiment. ‘That country has become the laboratory for what I have been talking about for the past year – how to apply and fully integrate the full range of instruments of national power and international co-operation to protect our vital interests,’ he wrote in an op-ed in The Independent in October, 2008, on the eve of Obama’s election. That autumn, Gates also flatly predicted that the United States would accede to the request from the generals to add tens of thousands of troops to the war in the spring of 2009, even though it wasn’t clear whether Obama or John McCain would be commander-in-chief. ‘I believe we will be able to meet that commanders’ requirement, but in the spring and summer of 2009,’ Gates said.

Under Obama, Gates drew on his experience as director of the CIA to expand the Predator and Reaper drone programme. He backed military commanders, such as Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who wanted a troop-intensive counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan, firing Gen. David McKiernan and replacing him with McChrystal and then Petraeus. And during the debate over escalating the war once again in late 2009, Gates strongly supported Petraeus and McChrystal’s demand for an additional 33,000 troops. According to Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, Gates and the military command even dropped hints they’d resign if Obama didn’t give them what they wanted. ‘Not only McChrystal, but Petraeus, (Adm. Mike) Mullen, and even Gates might go – an unprecedented toppling of the military high command,’ wrote Woodward.

When Obama announced, in December, 2009, that he planned to start withdrawing US forces in July, 2011, Gates led the campaign to downplay the president’s policy, insisting that a withdrawal could be very limited. In the end, when Obama declared this month that he’d remove 33,000 troops by next summer, Gates – along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – argued against even that modest drawdown.

Robert Dreyfuss is an independent, investigative journalist in the Washington, D.C, area, who writes frequently for The Nation, Rolling Stone, and other publications.


Robert Gates presided over neither the best of times nor the worst of times in US-China military-to-military ties. He was a consistent, outspoken proponent of regular contacts between the US and Chinese armed forces. Despite his advocacy, the relationship oscillated in phase with fluctuations in the larger relationship between Washington and Beijing. In early June, Gates met with his Chinese counterpart, Defence Minister Liang Guanglie, at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue meetings in Singapore. The two officials last met in January in Beijing, when Gates traveled to China to resume talks.

‘Going forward,’ declared Gates following the Shangri-La meeting, ‘the US and China must do more to work together on issues where we have common strategic interest,’ including ‘piracy, disaster relief and North Korea.’ He pronounced US-China military relations in a ‘pretty good place.’ This marks a welcome change from the annus horribilis of 2010, when Beijing suspended contacts over US plans to sell armaments to Taiwan. US aircraft carrier operations in the Yellow Sea and continuing US reconnaissance flights along the Asian seaboard were only some points of contention during the hiatus.

How much do military-to-military ties matter? The concept that armed forces should remain on good terms is an offshoot of international relations ‘functionalism.’ The conceit underlying functionalism is that by working together on relatively apolitical matters of mutual interest, nations make progress in these areas while improving the overall climate between them. Over time, cooperation may become a matter of routine. Collaborative habits ease the challenge of finding common ground on more contentious topics. Great power concord results.

In theory, that is. It’s by no means clear that Chinese officials see military-to-military relations in these benign terms. Functional ties should endure through bad times, yet Beijing routinely severs contacts to signal displeasure at US actions like arms sales to Taiwan. In effect, China and the United States are negotiating the terms of Chinese entry into the international order presided over by the United States. Contacts between the two militaries cut back on miscalculations during this time of flux. They can’t resolve the more fundamental clash of interests and worldviews.

Secretary Gates laid the groundwork for functional cooperation should China agree to pursue it. If nothing else, he leaves behind a barometer for the US-China relationship. That’s no mean achievement.

James R. Holmes is a defence analyst for The Diplomat and an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College where he specializes in US, Chinese and Indian maritime strategy and US diplomatic and military history.


The United States’ most important Asian ally proved a difficult relationship to manage during Robert Gates’ tenure. By the time Gates came into office at the end of 2006, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had been replaced by the ineffective Shinzo Abe and Japanese Self-Defence Forces troops dispatched to Iraq for reconstruction purposes had already returned to Japan.

Within two years, the Maritime Self-Defence Forces’ Indian Ocean refuelling mission had also ended, leaving Japan with little direct contribution to ongoing US anti-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations. A series of one-year prime ministers hobbled high-level diplomatic initiatives between Tokyo and Washington, and great uncertainty accompanied the coming to power of the Democratic Party of Japan in September 2009. Relations turned decidedly negative after DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama followed through on a vague campaign promise to try and renegotiate the 2006 agreement to relocate US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Okinawa to a more remote site in the north of the island. During an October 2009 visit, Gates publically chastised the Hatoyama government over the agreement, and the remainder of his term was spent attempting to secure DPJ support for the move. Due to the DPJ’s domestic focus and budget cutting efforts, a lack of focus on security issues in Tokyo meant that the Futenma problem became the defining feature of the US-Japan relationship for over a year.

Regional security tensions, however, eventually forced both sides to recognize the importance of their broader alliance relationship. North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March 2010 and shelling of a South Korean island later that year spurred enhanced trilateral consultations among Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, while a Sino-Japanese face-off over the disputed Senkaku Islands resulted in a reaffirmation of US-Japan security commitments to each other. Meanwhile, Japan continued working with the US military on ballistic missile defences testing and movement was made to lift some of the restrictions on exporting jointly-developed military technology to third parties.

As Gates leaves office, both sides have recommitted politically to the controversial 2006 relocation Futenma relocation plan, but more importantly, heroic joint operations in the wake of the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami re-cemented warm political and social ties. While not resolving many outstanding issues in US-Japan relations during his tenure, Gates helped keep ties on track and focused on constructive engagement. His successor will deal with a Japan no more prepared to make hard decisions, but one that may have a better appreciation for its alliance with Washington.

Michael Auslin is Resident Scholar in Asian and Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. A frequent commentator in US and other media, Auslin is also a columnist for the Wall Street Journal.


Having put the agony of their shared history behind them, the United States and Vietnam today find themselves on the same side of the Asia-Pacific’s geopolitical divide, united by a wariness of China.

China’s rise is only one of the factors behind the rapprochement, however. Vietnam is struggling economically, and it sees an increase in trade as a possible route to recovery (Vietnam, like the United States, is preparing to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade group). Hanoi is also attempting to modernise its vast but outmoded military, and mil-mil exchanges with the US will help the Vietnamese to develop the doctrines they require in order to operate the advanced equipment they are beginning to acquire.

The question facing Leon Panetta as he takes charge at the Pentagon is whether he can build on a strategic relationship that has already made remarkable strides in the past few years. Sluggish Vietnamese progress on human rights and political reform may limit how far the United States is willing to go, but strategic priorities could stiffen Washington’s resolve to cultivate Vietnam despite those constraints.

On Robert Gates’ watch, the United States inaugurated the annual US-Vietnam Political, Security and Defence Dialogue in 2008 before making Vietnam a focal point of the Obama Administration’s policy of re-engaging Southeast Asia. Gates visited Vietnam in 2010 and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did so twice, while inaugural joint naval exercises were conducted at Danang the same year.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue, held in Singapore in early June, Gates spelled out the US intention to reshape its presence in the Asia-Pacific. The Vietnamese delegation said that it welcomed US plans to base littoral combat ships in Singapore and to prioritise Asia more generally, and Panetta has the opportunity to capitalise on this Vietnamese goodwill. Vietnam is refurbishing its naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay with a view to hosting foreign naval vessels, and the new defence secretary will no doubt embrace the strategic opportunity.

For Vietnam’s part, maritime disputes with China have only convinced it still further that its interests are best safeguarded by aligning itself with the US and US-friendly countries such as Australia, India and Japan. With ASEAN appearing incapable of protecting Vietnam’s interests – and several ASEAN members disputing Vietnamese claims in the South China Sea – Vietnam represents an open goal for the incoming defence secretary as he sets about making good on Gates’ pledge to renew the United States’ Asia-Pacific commitments.

Trefor Moss is an independent journalist who reports on defence and security in the Asian region. He was Asia-Pacific Editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly until 2009, and has reported widely from across the region.


Robert Gates tenure coincided with some important developments in the realm of Indo-US relations. Gates took over the onerous responsibility in December 2006, less than a year after George W. Bush’s India visit. His primary responsibility was ensuring the success of the Indo-US nuclear deal and also strengthening Indo-US defence ties.

Gates made two visits to India, the first in February 2008, under the Bush administration. The main purpose of this visit was to strengthen defence ties by selling US arms manufactures. The second visit was in January 2010 and was aimed at acting as a kind of stocktaking of South Asian regional security. During his visit, Gates praised India for exhibiting statesman-like restraint in the aftermath of the heinous Mumbai attacks. The other issues on the agenda were getting India to sign the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), which would entail provision of air and sea ports for each other on a reciprocal basis, and the Communication Inter-operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), which would facilitate information sharing by enabling an easier interface between their militaries. India declined to sign either of these agreements, due to apprehensions that they would impinge on national sovereignty and security.

Gates and the United States weren’t completely successful in pushing the Indo-US strategic partnership to new heights, due to differences in perception over certain issues.

For example, some in India weren’t happy with Gates giving a clean chit to Pakistan during his Jan 2010 visit in the immediate aftermath of a major terrorist attack in Kabul. Similarly, India was reportedly denied export licences for various requirements of the armed forces. The inclusion of some Indian defence PSUs and Defence Research and Development Organisation laboratories in the US government’s ‘entity list’ also proved to be a thorny issue between the two. Still, Gates unambiguously argued that the changed landscape within South Asia and outside has been one of the key catalysts for the strengthening of the Indo-US relationship.

While outside South Asia, the end of Cold War politics meant that differences between the world’s largest and oldest democracy had drastically reduced, within South Asia, the reconstruction and rebuilding of Afghanistan and the desire to fight the scourge of terror were twin aims that the world’s largest and oldest democracy respectively shared.

As Gates argued during the Shangri-La dialogue this month:‘A partnership that will be an indispensable pillar of stability in South Asia and beyond whether countering piracy, increasing participation in multilateral venues, or aiding the development of Afghanistan, our partnership is playing a vital role.’

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.


In his book Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward writes that rather than take the lead on policy, Robert Gates tends to carefully evaluate which direction the wind is blowing in Washington before committing himself. This assessment of Gates’ personality as an old political survivor is supported by his role in shaping — or not shaping — US policy on Taiwan.

Over the years, few things have encapsulated Washington’s relations with Taipei as arms sales to Taiwan, an exercise whose significance goes well beyond the actual military items acquired by the island. In fact, arms sales have become a symbol of Washington’s commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, which was signed into law in 1979 after the United States switched diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing.

During Gates’ tenure, the Pentagon was largely uninvolved in decision making regarding the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. The US, per its commitments under the TRA, must endeavour to ensure that Taiwan has the means to defend itself against China. That the balance of power has been allowed to shift to such an extent in Beijing’s favour is a reflection of policy preferences at the White House, the National Security Council and the State Department. We have, however, seen little sign that Gates or his subordinates were willing to reshape those policies by pushing for the release of weapons systems needed by Taiwan, such as F-16C/Ds and diesel-electric submarines. This was also reflected in the long-stalled release of a Pentagon report to Congress on the balance of air power in the Strait.

Gates’ chameleon-like approach to decision-making also succeeded in exacerbating uncertainties over US commitments to Taiwan’s defence against an increasingly assertive China. While some would argue that ambiguity was at the core of a successful US strategy in the Taiwan Strait — successful insofar as the two sides avoided descending into war — there are now fears that too much ambiguity could invite Chinese military adventurism or miscalculation.

Under Gates, the civilians at the Pentagon and officers in the ranks haven’t provided the necessary counterbalance to State and the NSC, and as a result, the kind of pressure on the executive that’s needed for the debate on Taiwan to remain honest has for the most part been absent. Of course, one could argue that with two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the North Korea nuclear threat unresolved, Gates had no choice but to align his views with those of the White House, which was — and remains — risk averse over Taiwan.

That isn’t to say that the US military has completely abandoned Taiwan, as its presence on the island, in the form of visits by retired officials and contractors helping it develop its C4ISR platforms, remained vibrant under Gates. But all of this has been conducted behind the scenes so as to avoid ‘poisoning’ relations with Beijing, which to many has signalled weakness.

As he steps down, Gates leaves behind a legacy of not rocking the boat on Taiwan that will be very difficult for his successor to shed.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news chief at the Taipei Times and a correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly.

North Korea
North Korea

Robert Gates will pass on one of the most enduring security challenges in the region: North Korea. The North’s economy is in tough shape, the result of poor policy decisions, an inefficient communist system, bad weather, and economic sanctions. For years, analysts have predicted the collapse of North Korea, yet the country continues to plod along, fearful of economic reform, despite Beijing’s encouragement to adopt its economic model.

North Korea is also in the midst of a leadership transition as Kim Jong-il seeks to pass the reins to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. After Kim Jong-il’s health scare in 2008, the regime fast-tracked the transition, promoting Kim Jong-un to important positions within the party and the military including four-star general, despite having never served in the armed forces. He is only in his late 20s, and it’s unclear whether the old guard in the military and party will accept him once his father dies. Several Kim family members have been promoted, in particular, Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law to ensure the transition continues upon Kim Jong-il’s passing. The transition may proceed more smoothly than many expect as elites have a lot to lose should it go badly but no one knows for sure. In any case, major policy shifts are unlikely until this power transition is solidified.

Finally, there’s the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. Pyongyang tested nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009, and despite its current willingness to return to talks, few hold out hope that North Korea will ever give them up. From North Korea’s vantage, it resides in a tough neighbourhood, uncertain of any security commitment from China, and sees nuclear weapons addressing important security concerns. Pyongyang also maintains a robust ballistic missile programme that will, one day, be able to reach the United States.

The dilemma for Washington, Seoul, and others in the region is what to do next. Though no one is willing to recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, at some point, it will be necessary to restart a dialogue with Pyongyang to address a host of other issues. However, North Korea must also refrain from further provocations like sinking the Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong island, and demonstrate greater willingness to work for peace in the region to make talks productive. Unfortunately for Secretary Panetta, there will be no easy solutions to any of these issues.

Terence Roehrig is a Professor in National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College.


During the course of his five years as defence secretary, Robert Gates has worked hard to reinvigorate the US military’s antipodean relations. Most significantly, he reassured Australians that the US military would remain engaged in Asia. Incoming Defence Secretary Leon Panetta will therefore inherit a strengthened defence relationship in which Australians, for the first time in decades, seem prepared to accept an enhanced US military presence on Australian soil.

During Gates’ first year in office a change of government in Australia led to a withdrawal of Australian combat troops from Iraq and a re-examination of Australian support for the US global war on terror. Australia proved willing to increase its troop contribution in Afghanistan, though demurred from accepting command of Uruzgan Province after a Dutch withdrawal in 2009. This increased tension between the US military and Australian Defence Force, yet Gates was sensible enough not to embarrass the Australian government by pressing the point publicly.

Also in 2009, Australia released a defence white paper that called for significant spending on maritime and air capabilities suitable for high-end conflict. The white paper illustrated the widening gap between the thinking of US and Australian defence planners. Gates and US planners seemed distracted by Afghanistan and focused on future conflicts involving hybrid threats from non-state actors. Australia’s defence planners were instead concerned about a rising China, increased strategic uncertainty between major powers in Asia, and growing pessimism about the fiscal foundations of US security guarantees.

Though his president twice cancelled visits to Australia, Gates made several – the most significant to Melbourne last year for the annual AUSMIN talks between Australian and US foreign and defence ministers. The talks included a significant public diplomacy effort by the United States, with town hall style meetings and extended media engagements. The message was clear – America was engaged in Asia. That message was backed up by the announcement of a bilateral track on the US Global Force Posture Review, as well as joint security cooperation in the global commons of space, cyber, and maritime.

This month the annual Lowy Institute poll recorded that a majority (55 percent) of Australians would welcome an enhanced US force posture in Australia. It’s a surprising result, and due in part to the work of Gates. As Australia reviews its own military force posture with an eye on the increasing security complexities of the Indo-Pacific Peninsula, it looks likely that US and Australian military forces will become increasingly entwined in Asia.

James Brown is the Military Associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates steps down on June 30 after almost five years in the job, and having served under both a Republican and Democrat president. The Diplomat asked some of the leading Asia analysts to assess how some of the key US military relationships developed under Gates, and the main challenges that his successor, Leon Panetta, faces as he takes over.