Robert Gates leaves government service this week. Wichitans can be proud of their native son. But in his absence, all Americans should be concerned. For the first time in five years, this wise and extraordinarily competent public servant will no longer be whispering in the ear of the president of the United States.
Gates has served eight presidents in sensitive posts, including CIA director. While he has his critics, the consensus is that Gates has been a great secretary of defense. In 2009, President Obama underscored that evaluation by asking Gates, a George W. Bush appointee, to stay on.
In 2006, Gates inherited a defense establishment in turmoil resulting from the Iraq War and the controversial tenure of Donald Rumsfeld. In contrast to Rumsfeld, Gates brought calm, disciplined, courageous leadership to the post. He successfully managed the 2006 surge in Iraq and has presided over the winding down of that war. He has managed a difficult situation in Afghanistan and set the stage for ending that conflict.
In the Gates regime, heads rolled when subordinates messed up. He removed the Army's secretary and surgeon general in response to a scandal over the care for soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He fired the Air Force secretary and chief of staff over the mishandling of a shipment of nuclear weapons. In Afghanistan, he removed Gen. David McKiernan and replaced him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
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Gates lifted the ban on women serving on submarines. He laid the groundwork for repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that had forced so many recruits out of uniform. And he attacked wasteful military spending, eliminating an estimated $350 billion worth of procurement and other pet congressional projects.
The soft-spoken Gates was blunt when it counted. He clearly had qualms about intervention in Libya. When prestigious senators pushed for a no-fly zone in early March, Gates vividly described the violence that would be required to take out Moammar Gadhafi's air defenses. Gates lost the argument over NATO's intervention in Libya, perhaps reinforcing his decision that it was time to leave.
At the Wichita East High School commencement in 2009, Gates urged the graduates to embrace four leadership traits: integrity ("honesty, telling the truth, being straight with others and yourselves"), moral courage (doing "what is right and not just what is popular"), treating other people "with common decency and respect," and stepping up in service to others (and "to their community and their country"). That is a Robert Gates self-portrait.
As an Eisenhower scholar, I view Gates as a latter-day apostle of Ike's strategic vision. Speaking at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene last year, Gates described himself as "a person of few illusions" and few "unalloyed heroes." Eisenhower, whose portrait hangs behind the secretary's desk in the Pentagon, is one of them.
Gates shares Eisenhower's skepticism about military spending. Eisenhower, he recalled, "was wary of seeing his beloved republic turn into a muscle-bound garrison state — militarily strong but economically stagnant and strategically insolvent."
After NATO intervened in Libya, Gates was asked whether American troops would ever be used in Libya. He declared: "Not as long as I'm in this job."
This Friday he will no longer be in "this job." That prospect should prompt us to pray for our country.