I enjoyed Ezra Klein’s first-ever “Wonky” awards for various achievements in policy. But I think that he missed the boat on one of them — or, perhaps, given Wonkblog’s focus, my candidate wouldn’t be eligible. “Policymaker of the Year”? Should have gone to former defense secretary Robert Gates, who left the Pentagon halfway through 2011.
As Fred Kaplan said in a long profile back in 2010, Gates “changed the way the Pentagon does business and the military fights wars more than any defense secretary since Robert McNamara.”
Gates killed or halted more than 30 weapons systems, including some of the services’ most cherished chestnuts (the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, the Army’s Future Combat Systems vehicle, the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer). He forced the chiefs to build or accelerate a new generation of weapons that rubbed up against their institutional interests but were vitally necessary to the wars that they were fighting (the MRAP, mine-resistant, ambush-protected, troop-carrier and a slew of unmanned aerial vehicles, a.k.a. “drones”).
He helped change the military culture: the way the Pentagon does business and the services fight wars. But he had no interest in challenging that culture’s foundations — the global reach of U.S. military power and presence. That is to say, he was a radical, to the extent that he forced the bureaucracy to perform its missions more effectively — but he was a conservative, in that he was dedicated above all to preserving those missions.
I’ll add that the successful implementation of repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy took place largely under Gates’s watch, too. I recommend both pieces for much more detail.
I’m not really tweaking the excellent people at the invaluable Wonkblog, because as I said their focus is generally domestic policy. But even there, what Gates was up to had plenty of budget implications, both good and bad. If the only rules here are making public policy, my vote for Policymaker of the Year would have been: Bob Gates.