Written Joshua Patton,
As a constant observer of politics and policy in America, in December of 2004 I should have wanted to attend the briefing with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Instead, I skipped out on the briefing to go for chow or maybe hit the dayroom. Not only did I miss running into my friend Mike from high school, who was readying for his first deployment to Iraq, but I also missed the famous statement about going to war “with the Army you have,” and not “the army you want.” At the time, we soldiers were all feeling the effects of Secretary Rumsfeld’s policies and many of us didn’t want him whispering in our ears.
His replacement, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, has a markedly different effect on his troops than his predecessor. He is also the only one to bridge two different Presidential administrations. He oversaw the surge, the ramped-up efforts in Afghanistan, budget cuts, and also was a proponent of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Obama Administration likes to also prop him up as one of the two Republicans in his cabinet, but – according to the Washington Post – Secretary Gates sees himself as apolitical having served under many presidents of both parties.
When appointed by President Bush after Rumsfeld’s resignation, he was clear that he only planned to stay on until the end of 2008. He was then asked by President Obama to stay on for another year and then another year after that. He wants to step down this year, presumably to avoid the firestorm that is sure to come in 2012 – not the annihilation of the world as predicted by the Mayans, but the next presidential election. Yet, as his press secretary Geoff Morrell puts it, “[Gates is] a miserable failure at retirement.”
The Obama Administration certainly wants Secretary Gates to stick around. There is no debate about whether or not Gates is effective in his role as there was during Rumsfeld’s tenure. When Gates released his budget slashing $100 million from the defense budget many people, including your erstwhile correspondent, thought that perhaps this could be a bit of Kabuki theater, knowing that Gates made those cuts planning to leave the execution to his successor. The current stories out of the capital indicate that perhaps the President doesn’t trust this unnamed successor to implement those cuts. Of course, this would mean that Secretary Gates – who would have worked per diem if given the opportunity – would be the Secretary of Defense for President Obama’s entire first term.
It is difficult to separate the balls from the bluster when it comes to political figures. Yet, as an unelected government official, Secretary Gates doesn’t have to give a damn about what Joe and Jane Q. Public think about anything. In Congressional hearings, he answers questions specifically and directly, but with the nuance and verbal dexterity of a man that for nearly four decades dealt with CIA spooks, high-rankers, and clandestine information. In his self-identified final speech to the United States Military Academy, Gates spoke to the soldier-students there opining about the future of warfare and the folly of training around these wild and almost always-wrong guesses. It is this frank honesty and his reluctance to hold on to any power once he gets it are precisely the qualities that make him ideal for this type of work.
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