WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Bob Gates repeated the same phrase every time he stopped to meet with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan last week: I want to get you what you need to be successful, regardless of the bureaucratic obstacles, and come home safely. When he said it, he often seemed to get choked up.
That’s the essential Gates: independent, ornery, sentimental. A small, tidy man, wearing a baseball cap over his white hair, the 66-year-old occasionally looked weary as he shook hands with hundreds of soldiers in the scorching heat. One of his trademark phrases, aides say, is: “I’m too old for this shit.” But he insists on the troop visits, saying that they energize him for the budget and policy battles at the Pentagon.
When I asked Gates in an interview on the way home how he wanted to be remembered as secretary of defense, he answered: “I would like to have the troops think of me as somebody who really looked out for them.”
Some Cabinet officials avoid picking fights, but Gates seems to like telling people off if they get in the way of his basic mission. This includes challenging generals and admirals who want to protect their perks, defying members of Congress who want more pork-barrel military spending, and insisting on faster delivery of armored vehicles, surveillance drones and medevac helicopters.
The Gates era at the Pentagon, which has lasted four years and stretched through two presidents, will probably end next year. He has said that he plans to retire in 2011, and aides say this time he really means it. Though he was initially a Republican appointee, he is probably the Cabinet member with the most influence on Obama, who shares Gates’ low-key, analytical style.
“One of the benefits of being secretary of defense is that you never have to elbow your way to the table,” Gates said in the interview. Rather than battling the secretary of state, national security adviser or CIA director, as did so many of his predecessors, Gates has helped bring the national-security team together. This has provided unity, but liberals could argue that having a Bush holdover in such a key position has blunted Obama’s ability to make a sharp break with past policies.
Gates’ departure is only one of a series of changes that are likely for the Obama team next year: Gen. Jim Jones will probably leave his post as national security adviser. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, will complete his term in October 2011, and several of the service chiefs are also due to retire.
The defense secretary said he hopes to have a “dialogue” with Obama about filling “senior military positions where successors will need to be identified.” He also plans to push Congress and the Pentagon brass for more cuts in overhead and unnecessary weapons programs — and sounds almost eager to “take the heat” for challenging the military-industrial status quo.
Gates has been orbiting the National Security Council, one way or another, for more than 30 years. He said his model as national security adviser was Gen. Brent Scowcroft, whom he served as deputy during the Bush 41 administration. A successful adviser “doesn’t play the instruments, but conducts the orchestra,” Gates said. He has been publicly supportive of Jones, who sought to play the Scowcroft “honest broker” role, despite some obvious bumps in the road.
Gates made his bones as a CIA analyst and later served as the agency’s director, and I asked him how his old shop was faring. He gave a blunt answer: The agency would always be an “anomaly,” as a secret organization in a democratic government. “The truth is, across the political spectrum, it has had relatively few supporters,” other than presidents who find they like its clandestine powers. “It’s just an itch in our system that’s hard to scratch,” he said.
As he was departing for the war zones last week, Gates made a speech to an American Legion convention in Milwaukee. When he read a section citing the number of Americans killed and wounded in Iraq, he seemed on the verge of tears. Many American political figures get emotional about war but few seem to feel it as personally as Gates. He gets angry — in a way we don’t see often enough in Washington — when he encounters political or bureaucratic resistance that puts these soldiers at greater risk.
If people in Gates’ Pentagon don’t do their jobs, he fires them. That sense of accountability may be his biggest achievement.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.