I would be remiss if I did not note that yesterday marked the end of Robert Gates' service as Secretary of Defense. He has served every President since Jimmy Carter, when he was hired to work on the National Security Staff by Zbigniew Brzezinski. Non-partisan in a good sense, Gates exemplifies rare virtues in public servants - honesty, a refusal to truckle to his paymasters, and a willingness to perform tasks and carry out policies with competence and without a great deal of public attention-seeking - that are far too rare. Compared to other Cabinet-level appointees from Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger to Alexander Haig and Donald Rumsfeld, his virtues seem so obvious they almost escape notice.
No NPR the other day, I heard a tape from a Congressional hearing at which Gates was a witness back in 2006. He was asked a direct question by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and he gave a direct, one word answer. When asked if he believed we were "winning" in Iraq (a concept I still find difficult to understand because it has never been defined), Gates said, "No." That right there should have endeared him to the hearts of so many critics of the Bush Administration. Not the answer itself. Rather, in an Administration constructed around misdirection and obfuscation, Gates offered a direct, transparent honesty that should have made people sit up and take notice. Bush-fatigue, however, being the widespread phenomenon it was by then, few (including me) were willing to notice this fundamental difference with the rest of Bush's national security team.
Obama's record on foreign affairs seems, to me at least, a mixture of continuity with some of the worst tendencies of the Bush Administration and a curious tendency to improvise, with the occasional word from on high in speeches such as his Nobel acceptance speech, pronouncements on Israel/Palestine, and his Egypt speeches. As counterpoint, Gates has been a quiet, thoughtful, and serious adviser, skeptical both on Obama's decision regarding the pace of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the recent military action in Libya, as well as urging and supportive in Obama's decision to draw down (although not remove) troops from Iraq.
As Secretary of Defense, his biggest virtue has been the attention he lavishes on the troops. He has visited them frequently, spoken to them one-on-one, shaken their hands, and expressed, repeatedly using the same phrases over and over, the way decisions he has made that effect their lives weight on him because he considers them not just our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, but our fellow citizens. Being able to combine this kind of personal approach as well an intelligence and insight on matters of policy is rare enough; doing so serving different Presidents of different parties is even more rare.
His replacement across the river, Leon Panetta, is an example of the kind of Washington creature best described as courtier. Best known as Clinton's late-term Chief of Staff and currently head of the CIA, one thing Panetta does not bring to the office is the kind of resume that would lend credibility to his advice on defense matters. He is a toady, not a public servant. I shall worry over the course of his tenure about the kind of advice Obama will receive, and if he will be willing to do the unthinkable - insist that the President might well be making mistakes.
Thank you, Robert Gates, for your service to our country, to our military, and for the example you have set. I do not know if you are the best of our Secretaries of Defense, as the President said, but you have been quite good, and we as a country owe you a debt of gratitude.