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Jon Meacham: A salute to Defense Secretary Robert Gates

It was a dark hour, that dispiriting autumn of 2006.  America was fighting two wars, neither very well, and the voters sent the strongest message they could in a midterm election, rebuking George W. Bush with what he called a “thumpin’.” When the president emerged to speak to the country in the aftermath of the democratic victories, he had at least one answer, one tangible sign that he — in that much-overused phrase — “got it.”

That answer was Robert Gates, who would, the president announced, replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.  Now, nearly five years and a president later, Gates is leaving the Pentagon after a tour of duty that repays attention, for his tenure illustrates some of the noblest aspects of public service as well as some of the tragic, apparently inescapable realities of public life.

First, the bright side.  Secretary Gates was a man imbued with the ethos of George H. W. Bush, not that of the former president’s son.  A CIA man, Gates served presidents of both parties and had left government to run Texas A&M — the home, it should be noted, of the 41st president’s library and school of public service.  When the call came to take over for Rumsfeld, it was not difficult to discern that it was a certain tacit recognition from the world of Bush 43 that perhaps the world of Bush 41 had something to offer.

And Gates offered a steadying, sensible hand.  A realist, Gates presided over the calming of Iraq and has raised the ever-uncomfortable but essential issue of redundant military spending.  When President Obama asked him to stay on, the young president was sending a signal that this was not to be a radical administration.  His depth of experience and unflappable demeanor made him a kind of cult figure in Obama circles; even the most senior members of the administration spoke of Gates with awe and admiration as they began to grasp the scope of the responsibilities that were now theirs.

And yet, and yet.  Gates has been praised for his candor in a speech to cadets at West Point in February, where he said, “In my opinion, any future Defense Secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Fair enough.  But Gates has served through a time of troop escalations in Afghanistan, a war that is at best a muddle.  There is a fundamental, tragic disparity at the heart of the enterprise in Afghanistan.  Robert Gates was the kind of figure who might have been able to move us from an undermanned counterinsurgency to a more rational counterterrorism operation there, but he did not.

I propose, then, a new Gates Doctrine: whenever any administration or Congress faces a military decision, they should step back for a moment and ask whether they should have their heads examined.  If the answer is yes, then think again, and think of Robert Gates, a wise, imperfect man who did the best he could in a imperfect world.


  • Lynn

    I’m sorry – did you not just report in the first segment of your show tonight, that the Dept of Defense denied the existence of the DATF?  And now you are lionizing Gates??  Please explain that apparent gross contradiction!

  • Lynn

    I’m sorry – did you not just report in the first segment of your show tonight, that the Dept of Defense denied the existence of the DATF?  And now you are lionizing Gates??  Please explain that apparent gross contradiction!

  • jan

    Mr. Gates was in power at the time when the military dropped all ethics and committed itself to torture; something John McCain also opposes strongly.  I’m sorry but there is no way I would ever admire Mr. Gates for anything.  The thought that he is admired in the Obama circles is far from comforting; especially given the fact that Obama escalated things in Afghanistan as soon as he got into office and has now gotten us entangled in Libya.  I can honestly say that for the first time in 30 years, I look forward to voting against a democrat (Obama) in 2012. 

    I’m sorry but I’m going to have to completely disagree with you on this topic.    

  • Deb Schroeder

    I think Gates has done a good job. At least as good as possible given the task. Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush were war mongers. They got us into The wars we now fight. I don’t know the goal. Afghanistan was originally to get Bin Laden, took us awhile, but we did it. Iraq was another story, still don’t know what that was all about. When it is all said and done will we have allies in these two countries? Don’t think so. They are not like us. What was Obama to do? We were under manned in Afghanistan and our soldiers were being  killed. As much as I would have liked to just remove troops from both counties, it was not an option. But I don’t think anything will improve. You are dealing with Taliban, who have no respect for women or human life. You can not force respect on people. Again, they are not like us. When the citizens of these two nations get tired of their life, perhaps they will chose to do something. It has to be their choice though, not ours!

  • chuckvw

    Cognitive dissonance tonight.  Mr. Meacham must surely be aware that, from Iran-Contra to the bloody muddle that is Afghanistan, Gates is complicit in all of the homocidal corruption and  deceit our country has inflicted on this poor world for many years now.

    Gates is certainly not the slobbering, lying fiend that was Donald Rumsfeld, or the mean-spirited dullard that was G.W. Bush, but somehow that makes any reflection on his career even more troubling.  Precisely because he is a man of parts – lacking only a moral compass if one is to judge from his participation in the killing grounds of Central America Iraq and Afghanistan – he must be held to a higher standard.

    Gates tragically squandered his many admirable attributes.  He is not a figure worthy of celebration,

  • chuckvw

    Darn it!  Should be  ”homicidal”.

    Also, I should add that the rest of the program was excellent.

  • Guest

    To your first point, Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense when the Abu Ghraib incidents took place.  Gates was not appointed until 2006, well after those scandals had been brought to light.