Gates has traveled the typical farewell circuit in a most untypical way. He has indeed been emotional as he has visited the troops he sent to warzones. But he has carefully eschewed the usual serialized pabulum that most officials ladle out at ceremonies at the U.S. military academies, testimonies at congressional hearings, and at the usually honorific glad-handings with global allies - as we saw most recently when he visited NATO headquarters in Brussels for the usual pro forma friendly farewell.
Instead, the soft-speaking national security careerist sounded a warning call that was as subtle as a storm siren in tornado season. Gates, who is retiring at the end of June (his replacement: CIA director Leon Panetta), blasted NATO's military performance and questioned Europeans' political will in ways far more blunt that any U.S. president ever has. Gates warned his NATO colleagues of what he called "the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance."
Ignoring the traditional military/diplomacy gambit of merely praising NATO's efforts in Afghanistan and Libya, Gates shined a spotlight on NATO's shortcomings in both efforts. He called the failures "unacceptable."
NATO's Afghanistan mission, he said, "has exposed significant shortcomings in NATO - in military capabilities, and in political will. ... NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 40,000 troops, not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and much more."
On the Libya campaign, where NATO has led and the United States plays an officially subordinate role of air support, mainly using unmanned drone aircraft, Gates said: "It has become painfully clear that similar shortcomings - in capability and will - have the potential to jeopardize the alliance's ability to conduct an integrated, effective and sustained air-sea campaign."
Gates said less than half of NATO's members have participated in the effort, and only one-third have contributed militarily. He sharply criticized the under-performance of NATO's air operations center, based in Italy:
"We have the spectacle of an air operations center designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150. Furthermore, the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country - yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference."
Finally, Gates warned that the United States simply cannot and will not continue paying for 75 percent of NATO's defense spending, as it has ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress - and in the American body politic writ large - to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense," he said.
A most remarkable and valuable public servant, Gates had retired as head of the CIA to what he thought was a fine career capper as president of Texas A&M University. Then President George W. Bush called, imploring him to serve yet again by running the Pentagon at a time when the U.S. was over-extended in two troubled war efforts (Afghanistan and Iraq). He wanted to leave when Bush left, but President Obama persuaded him to stay on for a bit - which became nearly three more years.
We do not yet know if the harsh meaning of Gates' softly spoken warning has succeeded in finally shaking Europe's self-satisfied pillars all the way down to their foundations. We can only hope so - for Europe's security and ours.
Bob Gates' blunt candor may prove to be his grandest goodbye gift - to his presidents and the countrymen he served.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.