Whether the characterization is fair or not, many Americans have labeled the George W. Bush Administration as the most incompetent American presidency in the past thirty years. But if that is true, Robert Gates should be considered the sole survivor — indeed the sole exception — to the generalization.
Even before Washington was ready to absorb Bob Gates into the Pentagon’s senior ranks, the Beltway was intimately familiar with his intense work ethic and focused personality. Gates is a Washington veteran in every sense of the word. He has served a total of six presidential administrations over a time span of forty years.
His first Washington gig took the form of a low level CIA analyst, where he was responsible for assessing classified information on anything and everything Soviet.
But his low status didn’t last very long. After a short eight year stint at the agency, he served on the staff of President Gerald Ford’s National Security Council, only to return to the CIA a few years later as a top analyst in the agency’s Strategic Evaluation Center. Little did Mr Gates know that his hard work would eventually earn him the attention and respect of an American president. Two years later, he was nominated by George H.W. Bush to be his top official in the Central Intelligence Agency. (To date, Gates’ is the only employee in the agency’s history to have climbed the entire CIA career ladder.)
All of these accomplishments should be noted. Indeed, a normal person would probably find it tempting to quit after a grueling period as CIA chief. But Bob Gates is no normal person. He’s a worker, a highly respected intelligence leader, and a savvy bureaucratic infighter. He also happens to be someone who can reach across the partisan aisle on a tough issue and extend a hand when the country needs a burst of unity.
In hindsight, perhaps this is why George W. Bush would ask Gates to lead and revive a defense establishment that was losing morale amid two frustrating wars.
Rewind to the latter months of 2006. President Bush’s party just got trounced in the midterm elections; the war in Iraq was spiraling out of control; America’s credibility in the entire Muslim world was at an all time low; and the Taliban was starting to make a comeback in Afghanistan. Hundreds of American troops were dying in combat every month. To say that the Defense Department was looking for someone who could calm things down and bring everyone together would be an understatement.
The United States was at a turbulent point in its history. It didn’t stop Robert Gates from accepting the job of defense secretary.
Four years later, we can now sit back and reminisce about how great of a job Gates has done. Thanks in part to his temperate leadership style and his complete trust in his commanders, America’s most contentious foreign policy challenges are now starting to simmer down to a somewhat tolerable level.
An Iraq that was once labeled as an unwinnable quagmire was gradually becoming less violent as a result of a new strategy. Sunni insurgents that were wreaking havoc on Iraqi society were now becoming marginalized by a broad sector of the Iraqi population. Iraqi civilians once hostile to American forces were now responding to a little military concept called counterinsurgency. A certain degree of trust was rebuilt between American troops and Iraqis, resulting in information that would crack down on insurgent operations. Meanwhile, Gates was shielding General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker from congressional scrutiny, which allowed the duo to take risks that were required to turn the situation around.
Now, one administration later, Secretary Gates has expressed his desire to leave public service and move on with his life. In an exclusive interview with Fred Kaplan, the Washingtonian commented that he is quite happy with what he has accomplished and would be content on retiring next year if President Barack Obama didn’t ask him to stay on.
You may recall that Gates said a similar thing at the end of the Bush Presidency. But incoming President Obama found the secretary to be so transformative and so connected that he asked him to continue his job for another year. Six months later, Gates is not only still part of the Obama team but one of the most popular members of the administration.
Does the secretary really want to retire? If so, will President Obama let him? At a time when the United States are still active in Iraq, escalating in Afghanistan and fighting a covert war in Pakistan, Obama may not feel comfortable in letting him go.
Either way, the Obama Administration better start searching for replacements. Lord knows it’s going to be extremely difficult to fill Gates’ shoes.