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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.