Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates oversaw the troop surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan during his tenure at the Pentagon from 2006 to 2011. His recently published memoir, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War’ offers an inside perspective of the workings of both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
Gates spoke to Military Times on Friday about ongoing efforts to curb military compensation, how to identify toxic leaders and whether the Iraq war was worth the sacrifice.
Q: When you were defense secretary, you said health care costs were eating the department alive. How would you propose reforming health care costs?
Gates: I went to Congress three times in an effort to try and increase the premiums for working-age retirees. I think that the average costs for a family of four under Tricare when I was secretary was $460 a year — about a tenth of what another federal employee would pay.
And that’s understandable. But what I sought was a small increase in co-pays and an increase of $5 a month in the premium, which would have been an increase of $60 a year, so $520 a year for the policy.
One of the positions that opponents take is that we made a commitment to those who served in terms of providing health care through their lives. I agree with that, but when Congress established Tricare, it made clear that it wouldn’t be free and there would be a charge. We had gone — at that point, when I was proposing this to the Congress — some 15 years without a single increase in the cost of Tricare.
This is not for active-duty members or their families, nor is it for those who have reached retirement age. This is for those who are in some respects in their prime working life between 42 and 62. So it was limited to that.
I would say in this context a word about retirement benefits. As I told some service members the other day, I believe we do have a contract with those who have served and any changes to the retirement program should be grandfathered — whether it’s the [annual cost-of-living adjustment] or anything else. Because people have made their life plans based on certain assumptions of retirement that they were promised when they entered the service and I think the American people and the government have an obligation to fulfill that.
On the other hand … about 80 percent or so of those who enter military service do not retire. So under the current system … those who leave after five or 10 years basically leave without anything.
Long-term, I thought that something like a 401(k) or something that was mobile or portable that they could take with them, they would have something when they left the military that they could then roll over to a private-sector employer, would be a worthwhile benefit for them; but again, any changes like that would, in my view, need to be grandfathered.
Q: What do you see as the ultimate solution to reforming military compensation?
Gates: I think the only way that it works is to take the long view. Trying to change the system to produce short-term savings is probably destined to fail. So I think whether it’s grandfathering changes or having changes that will come into effect at some point in five or 10 years in the future is the way people ought to be thinking about it.
Then it gets people accustomed to what’s coming. I think pulling any surprises on people when it comes to compensation — particularly after a dozen years at war — is both not fair and probably not politically possible.
Q: How do you feel the military can get a handle on sexual harassment and sexual assault?
Gates: This came up as an important issue pretty late in my tenure. Our investigators weren’t well trained. Our prosecutors weren’t well trained. Defendants would go out and get private-sector attorneys who specialized in defending sexual assault cases where most of our prosecutors were generalists. So we invested a fair amount of money in both improving the skills of our investigators and improving our prosecutors.
We also learned that — just as a procedural matter — our investigators weren’t keeping rape kits as long as police departments did. So there were a lot of those things that needed to be fixed. But the bigger problem, as far as I am concerned, is not only that this is illegal behavior but that it is a betrayal of trust.
Each member of the service is supposed to look after the other and protect the other. When you go into the battlefield, your buddies have your back. [Sexual assault] is an ultimate act of betrayal in my view. I think it’s not only a matter of being more aggressive in prosecutions and investigations, it really is a leadership issue.
The one way you get people’s attention is by holding people accountable and if there is a unit or some larger element where there is a pervasive problem of sexual assault , then my view is the commander needs to be held responsible for that kind of a climate and that kind of culture — including being relieved, if necessary.
Q: There have been a lot of reports in the media recently about “toxic leaders.” How do you feel the Defense Department can weed out these type of leaders?
Gates: I talked about the danger of toxic leaders a lot … to new general officers, particularly the last couple of years I was in the job. These people … have terrible impact on morale.
As I told cadets at West Point, “At one point or another in your career, you will work for a jackass, because we all have.” People who are terrible to their subordinates may be perfectly civil and respectful up the chain of command. For a more senior person to identify a toxic person in the chain of command actually is a little harder than it may appear on the surface.
The only way you can really find out is for somebody to talk their subordinates and for their subordinates to be willing to talk about — and even document — cases of abuse by these toxic leaders. Sometimes, inspector general reports are the best way to find this out because a subordinate can anonymously say, “You need to look at this commander.”
We need to have a system — and I’m not sure exactly how to do it — but there needs to be a way in which, anonymously, people up the chain of command can be warned that somebody is a toxic leader, or tipped, so that they can carry out their own investigation.
Q: When you look at Iraq now, was it all for nothing?
Gates: No, I don’t think so — and I think this is an important message for the men and women who served there. I think we accomplished our objective in 2008 and 2009. We handed the Iraqis a country that was largely stable and secure with a rudimentary democracy.
The situation reminded me of the situation at the end of the [U.S.] Constitutional Convention when Benjamin Franklin was asked, “What have you given us?” He replied, “A republic — if you can keep it.”
We handed the Iraqis a golden opportunity and the question for them is whether they can keep it. I think that what has happened in Fallujah and in Ramadi and in Anbar province, I hope has been a wake-up call for [Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] that his anti-Sunni policies have blown up in his face — literally — and that he needs to reach out, make allies with the Sunni leaders, the tribal leaders and others, give them a reason to have confidence and faith in the government in Baghdad and then they will be his allies in taking on this spillover of al-Qaida from the Syrian civil war.
I don’t think we can call the experiment a failure at this point. There is still hope that this rudimentary democracy can evolve. But as far as I am concerned, our troops achieved their objective when we handed the situation over to the Iraqis in 2008, 2009 and people can be proud of having done that after a very, very difficult and grinding conflict.