If the leaks and rumors emanating from Barack Obama's insiders are correct, Robert M. Gates will soon be adding an eighth president to the list of commanders-in-chief he has served. According to Gates himself, he knew all but one of the seven well.
Why might President-elect Obama want to retain incumbent Bob Gates as his defense secretary? Because President-elect Obama is not stupid. There are few officials, Republican or Democrat, who have proven as adept at cleaning up policy messes in Washington. Unlike the president-elect himself, Gates is supra-experienced and ultra-savvy about Washington's bureaucratic ways. In other words, he not only knows where the proverbial bodies are buried, he has probably buried a few of them himself.
Moreover, Obama might want the defense secretary to stay on because, as his own record and writing suggest, Gates is as even-keeled and judicious in temperament as his future boss seems to be. In terms of policy instincts, the two might not be all that dissimilar.
As a member of the Iraq Study Group, the congressionally funded bi-partisan panel created in 2006 to reassess policy in Iraq, Gates, like Obama himself, opposed the "surge" in Iraq. Like Obama, he and other ISG members endorsed dialogue with both Syria and Iran, though Gates was shrewd enough to avoid opining on whether Washington should engage them with or without "preconditions." And like Obama, Gates has also favored sending additional troops and resources to Afghanistan, the original, but long under-funded battlefield of President Bush's "Global War on Terror." While the rhetoric about the nature of America's struggle against Islamic militancy will undoubtedly change after January 20, the need to continue killing, imprisoning, and de-radicalizing such extremists will endure, as the latest attack in the Indian city of Mumbai so tragically attests.
In the past two years, Defense Secretary Gates has won respect from many conservatives and liberals alike. Whatever his initial doubts about the wisdom of sending more troops to Iraq, he implemented the surge and the rest of the counterinsurgency strategy that have dramatically reduced the violence in Iraq. He publicly chastised the Air Force for failing to pull its full service weight in Iraq, fired the Air Force's civilian secretary and top military officer after nuclear weapons and components were mistakenly shipped across country and abroad and slashed weapons systems he considers obsolete.
Finally, conservative outlets have suggested that Obama might want to keep Gates on for political butt-covering, or as the Wall Street Journal writes more diplomatically on Friday, to provide "some political insulation if events go wrong."
We know little from Gates about why he would want to stay on. This is vintage Gates. Published in 1996, his autobiography, "From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, " is long on observations about Washington and short on details about himself. We do learn that at 23, he saw the CIA recruiter at Indiana University mainly because he thought he could get "a free trip to Washington." That's about as personal as the book gets.
But his pain is obvious in his discussion of Aldrich Ames's betrayal of the CIA — as is his assertion that Ames's treason caused the death of at least nine American agents. So is his account of his decision to withdraw his nomination as CIA director after weeks of brutal congressional grilling about the Iran-Contra affair. We see his affection for the first President George Bush, a "tough" taskmaster but a "delight to work for," a "gentleman in an age when not much premium is placed on that quality." And we see that he still believes that the Soviet Union was a "truly evil empire," whose demise was hastened by the men and women who fought to contain it in what he calls a "glorious crusade."
And finally, and perhaps most relevant to his apparent willingness to soldier on for a time in an Obama administration, Gates writes of the personal and political toll of the top job on the presidents he served. He more than other civil servants knows that presidents need the best advice they can get. "The elation of victory is fleeting and the burden of responsibility is enduring," he writes. "This is why character counts for so much in a president."