Robert Gates was on nobody’s short list to replace former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in November 2006, after Republicans lost control of the Congress in a midterm election considered a rebuke of the Iraq War leadership of President George W. Bush’s team.
Gates, a former CIA director, was an intelligence adviser to four presidents but had been out of Washington for 13 years. When Bush offered the Pentagon post, Gates accepted.
He was quiet, measured and practically polar opposite to the fiery Rumsfeld.
“You have asked for my candor and my honest counsel at this critical moment in our nation’s history, and you will get both,” Gates said as he was sworn in.
He left for Iraq the next day. It was to be the defining issue of his tenure, reviving the floundering war effort there and leaving behind a country able to stand without being propped up by the U.S. military.
Two years later, when President-elect Barack Obama asked him to remain on the job, the focus widened. Now, nearly six years after taking over, Gates is expected to step aside this summer, having overseen the withdrawal from Iraq and a massive ramping up of the war in Afghanistan. He also tackled a littany of issues inside the Pentagon and around the services.
“I think he had in mind two years and just sort of, stabilize things and make the department run a little better and so on,” said Brent Scowcroft, a Gates mentor and a former national security advisor to President George H.W. Bush. “He didn’t have any great aspirations. Then, when he was asked to stay on, then he took on some issues which were important for the national interest. So I think there are two phases.”
One of Gates’ first orders as secretary was to quickly build and field 2,225 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles — MRAPs — for deployed troops, many of whom were patrolling Iraq in Humvees. Gates cut through the red tape, putting the defense industry and Congress on notice in his first year.
“He fought the bureaucracy on that and won,” said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and retired Army lieutenant colonel. “There are a number of American sons and daughters that have been hurt or walked away unscathed from incidents that would have killed them if it weren’t for the MRAP.”
Gates went on to scale back or eliminate many Cold War-minded programs aimed at threat scenarios now deemed unlikely. One program that Gates has targeted has been the development of a second engine for the F-35 fighter jet.
“Every dollar spent on excess overhead or unneeded programs — such as the extra engine for the [Joint Strike Fighter] — is a dollar not available to support our troops and prepare for threats on the horizon,” he said in a January statement, preparing for this year’s budget fight.
When asked earlier this year how he wanted to be remembered, he told The Wall Street Journal: “The thing that would mean the most to me when I leave this job is if those kids in uniform remember they had a secretary of defense who, from the first day, they knew had their back.”
Nearly every time Gates travels abroad, he speaks with troops in small groups. And nearly every time, his voice waivers, his eyes water and he chokes up. He’s done it in Sangin, Afghanistan, and Kirkuk, Iraq; on training grounds at Coronado, Calif., and Camp LeJeune, N.C.; and on the tarmac in Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when American war dead come home.
For the thousands of troops who have hosted him, that sincerity is part of his legacy.
In March, Gates visted the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines deployed at Forward Operating Base Sabit Qadam, in Helmand province’s Sangin district. No other unit had taken more losses in the Afghanistan War.
“Every day, I monitor how you’re doing. And every day you return to your FOB without a loss, I say a little prayer,” Gates said. “And I say a prayer on the other days as well.
“I’m the one that signed the orders that sent you all here. I visit your wounded brothers at Bethesda. I write the condolence letters to the families of your fallen. And so I feel a tremendous personal sense of responsibility for each and every one of you. And I will, for as long as I’m secretary of defense,” he said.
“I feel your hardship and your sacrifice and those of your families more than you can possibly imagine.”