When President George W. Bush put Robert M. Gates at the helm of the Pentagon in November 2006, more than a few Washington hands wondered why anyone would take the job.
About 60 American troops were being killed and more than 500 wounded in combat each month in Iraq during a war many believed the United States was losing to a ragtag gang of irregular fighters. North Korea and Iran were racing to develop and deploy nuclear weapons; Russia was bullying eastern Europe; the war in Afghanistan was sagging into a bloody stalemate.
Former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), then chairman of the Armed Services Committee, asked Gates at his confirmation hearing if he was confident he could manage.
“Yes sir, I am," Gates replied briskly.
That sober, can-do attitude has powered Gates, short, stocky and vigorous at 67, through some of the most difficult national security challenges any defense secretary has faced. When President Barack Obama asked him to stay on, he became the first defense secretary in history to remain in the job under a newly elected president of a different party.
“He will go down as one of the great secretaries," said Eric Edelman, who served with Gates as the Pentagon’s senior policy chief during the Bush administration. “Arguably this country’s finest defense secretary ever," agreed Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon senior strategist.
Despite his effective management of two wars and other crises, Gates soon will leave the Pentagon, and officials say Obama will replace him with Leon Panetta, the current CIA director.
Gates, who declined to comment for this article, leaves much undone. No clear strategy exists for what likely will be a turbulent period even as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wind down. There’s no coherent plan to trim down a Defense Department swollen with money and troops for the war effort. President Obama has already ordered Gates to make deeper cuts in defense spending, and most outside experts believe more is needed.
On its current trajectory, by the end of this decade the United States will owe more in interest on the national debt than it will spend on national security, according government data. And the Pentagon’s festering financial problems -- it has been unable to pass an audit in years -- remain unresolved.
But it’s hard for outsiders to appreciate the burdens a defense secretary carries, especially during those dark days of late 2006. “For me, it was sobering, not to say frightening," Edelman told The Huffington Post. “Everything you’re doing is literally of vital interest to the country."
Gates was no stranger to Washington, having fought his way up from a post as a CIA clerk to eventually head the spy agency. He also served for nine years in the White House advising presidents on national security issues. When Bush asked Gates to return to Washington, he reluctantly resigned a cherished and lucrative position as president of Texas A&M University and hustled into town.
Yet even as a seasoned veteran, he was, according to acquaintances, shocked at the deluge of crises.
“He made the observation that he was not prepared for the high tempo of government, the constant cacophony of meetings, being called on to render immediate judgments on Iraq, Syria, Mumbai -- it’s like being a hockey goalie without much defense, having shots fired at you at 80 mph from every conceivable direction," Edelman said.
Bush had picked Gates to replace a flailing Donald Rumsfeld, who as defense secretary had overseen a series of strategic blunders in planning and managing the Iraq war and in late 2006 seemed unable to recognize, as Gates himself said, that “what we are doing now is not working."
Immediately after being sworn in as the Pentagon’s chief, Gates sped to Baghdad where, senior officers later said, he did something that Rumsfeld never had: He listened, calmly and quietly, and brought their ideas back to the Oval Office -- privately.
Less than a month later, Bush announced a “surge" of 20,000 more troops to Iraq, ignoring the advice of many in Washington, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace. Such a strategy came right from the field commanders, primarily Gen. Ray Odierno and Gen. David Petraeus, whom Gates had plucked from an academic job at Fort Leavenworth and put in charge of U.S. Central Command.
Gates helped employ a new approach in Iraq built around not just troop reinforcements, but on converting the Sunni tribal chiefs of western Iraq into a potent anti-insurgent militia. That concept grew into the “Sons of Iraq’’ program, which eventually enlisted tens of thousands of former enemy fighters onto the U.S. payroll.
Veteran insiders saw in these strategic shifts the fine hand of Gates. “Between his appointment and the announcement of the surge, he was not taking a public position, holding a clear degree of healthy skepticism, and holding back until all the arguments had been made and evidence was on the table," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a frequent consultant to the military command on Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s the model of government most of us would like to see: deliberate and analytical," Biddle added.
Not everyone agrees the surge was an unqualified success. Critics credit the impact of the new Bush approach to an unusual coincidence of Iraqi tribal politics, strategic blunders by al-Qaeda and the large amounts of American cash that flowed into the country.
Afghanistan has been even more of a challenge for Gates. Two years ago, with the Taliban making visible battlefield gains across the country, Gates abruptly fired Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander, and replaced him with the harder-charging Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Gates remained largely silent during the lengthy White House “strategic review" of Afghanistan war policy that fall, as the generals and administration civilians struggled over the military’s push to escalate with more troops and a harder-edged strategy. Gates tepidly endorsed Obama’s decision to authorize a surge of troop reinforcements and a deadline of July 2011 to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan.
Progress in Afghanistan has been slow and halting as public support at home has eroded. “My take on Gates is very simple: I don’t believe he has laid out a clear strategy" for Afghanistan, said Bing West, a former Marine officer, Pentagon official during the Reagan administration and author of a scorching new book on Afghanistan, “The Wrong War." “If he has reservations, the way he obviously does, then he should call everybody in and get a strategy straight before he walks out the door," West told The Huffington Post.
“My sense is that Gates has relied heavily on the commanders in the field" for judgments on Afghan policy, said Thomas H. Johnson, senior research professor and Afghanistan expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. “But he is secretary of defense, and while I get no satisfaction from saying this, we’ve just made blunder after blunder there."
Gates’ experience with both wars, and his long experience at the CIA, has reinforced his core belief the war and the use of force are extraordinarily unpredictable adventures that offer numerous opportunities for mis-steps and unintended consequences. From his long years of government service, Gates said he has learned two personal lessons: the necessity for “a sense of humility and an appreciation of limits.’’
He has been a strong voice this spring, taking the unusual step of cautioning the White House publicly against stepping too deeply into the chaos in Libya. “The power of our military’s global reach has been an indispensable contributor to world peace -- and must remain so,’’ he once declared. “But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every crisis can or should elicit an American military response, and we should acknowledge such."
“As General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell said," he continued, "‘No matter how a war starts, it ends in mud. It has to be slugged out -- there are no trick solutions or cheap shortcuts.’"
And war is chaos, he reminded journalist Fred Kaplan in a 2008 interview, with the risks of “mission creep" a strong undertow. “Once a conflict starts, the statesmen lose control," Gates said, adding that at the CIA he had learned to ask the question, “What’s chapter two? If we do this, what will they do? Then what?"
Gates has struggled with the Pentagon’s own entrenched bureaucracy, notably in his effort to trim defense spending and impose some discipline on the Defense Department’s vast, $700 billion operations. Early in his tenure, he told reporters that “if generals have made serious mistakes, specific mistakes, they should be held accountable just like any of us should be." Eighteen months later, in a move that rocked the military brass, he fired the top civilian and military leaders of the Air Force after a series of embarrassing gaffes in its handling of nuclear weapons.
And he tried to whip the Pentagon out of its historic lethargy. “For too many in the Pentagon it has been business as usual, as opposed to a wartime footing and a wartime mentality," he fumed in a 2008 speech at the National Defense University.
But Gates only marginally influenced the Pentagon’s voracious appetite for more -- more money, more weapons, more missions. Last year, an independent blue-ribbon panel commissioned by Congress sharply criticized the “absence" of “clear-cut planning" and setting priorities as the Pentagon faces an inevitable drawdown. The panel deemed the Pentagon’s current strategic plan inadequate, unaffordable, and leaving large gaps, including an insufficient capability to respond to domestic terrorism.
Without clear spending priorities, Gates has found it difficult to rein in the Pentagon’s budget.
“Gates can be faulted, along with every other recent secretary of defense" for financial management failings, said Travis Sharp, a military analyst at the Center for a New American Strategy, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Accordingly, Pentagon spending rose sharply under Gates, continuing a trend that has doubled the defense budget since 2001. The Defense Department “has had discipline problems in overhead, in mission creep, in hardware programs, that are still out of control," said Gordon Adams, an American University professor and former director of defense programs at the White House Office of Management and budget.
For all his exterior calm amid these problems -- and his habit of wading down the Pentagon’s corridors with a sheaf of papers and a broad smile for passersby -- Gates felt immense pressure and occasionally admitted to it. He once told of having dinner in a hotel by himself when a woman approached him to say she had two sons serving in Iraq. “For God’s sake, bring them home safe," she told the startled Gates. That, he said later, “is real pressure."
Gates often traveled to meet with troops and always got a laugh by referring sarcastically to Washington, D.C. At a town hall meeting with soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., a staff sergeant prefaced a question by asking, “How are you doing this morning, sir?"
Gates shot back: “How am I doing? Let me tell you, any time I am outside Washington, D.C., I’m doing great!" The hall erupted in laughter and cheers.