from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Mr. Gates Oversteps

March 31, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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In his Congressional testimony today, Secretary of Defense Gates overstepped his authority and undermined the president’s role as Commander in Chief.

According to the New York Times, Gates first said “What the opposition needs as much as anything right now is some training, some command and control and some organization. It’s pretty much a pick-up ballgame at this point.” But, he continued, providing training and weapons is “not a unique capability for the United States, and as far as I’m concerned, somebody else can do that.”

“As far as I am concerned” is an interesting phrase. Was the secretary speaking for himself, for the Pentagon, or for the president? What if the president determines later that the United States should in fact supply arms to the opposition? Why is Gates speaking out now to foreclose the president’s options? On March 3 he called discussions of a no-fly zone “loose talk,” but it seems that experience has made him more rather than less aggressive in ruling options in and out.

Far worse was Gates’s answer when asked if there would be American “boots on the ground.” According to the Times Mr. Gates replied “Not as long as I’m in this job.”

Who elected Bob Gates? That is a decision the president, or the president and Congress, should make. The secretary of defense has the obligation to give the president his unvarnished views—privately. It is wrong, and subversive of the president’s constitutional role, for the secretary of defense to threaten that he would resign if the president makes that decision. How else can one read Gates’s remark except as saying “I oppose this, and I won’t do it, and if the president orders me to do it I will quit.”

Mr. Gates is a short-timer and apparently now feels free to escape White House discipline and substitute himself for the president. If that is his view he should resign his post now. The right answer--indeed the only acceptable answer--to the question about “boots on the ground” was “The president will make that decision.”

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