Defense Secretary Robert Gates burst out of his office in mock horror.
His “countdown clock,” which tracked the number of days until the end of President George W. Bush’s term, and presumably his own tenure at the Pentagon, had inexplicably added 20 days.
“‘How do I get this fixed?’” his then-undersecretary for policy, Eric Edelman, recalls Gates asking. “He was counting down the days until he left.”
Then Bush did leave. Gates stayed.
The public servant who has worked under eight presidents has finally gotten his wish, having journeyed from an early-career rejection to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency to almost universal praise as secretary of defense.
Today, Gates handed control of the world’s most powerful military, with its reach into the far corners of the globe, to Leon Panetta, who was sworn in this morning after his last day as CIA director yesterday.
“Bob Gates, my outstanding predecessor and good friend, has been a tireless advocate for our troops and their families,” Panetta, a former Army intelligence officer, told troops and department personnel in a message. “I pledge to be the same.”
In Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates has worked to bring troubled military operations to the point where the U.S. may begin to withdraw its forces. He was the driver behind a $36 billion program to protect soldiers in the field with 23,000 mine-resistant ambush-protected armored vehicles, known as MRAPs. And he has put the Pentagon on a path toward tighter budgets, including canceling failing or unneeded weapons systems.
Along the way, he fired at least five top officials, including an Army secretary, an Air Force secretary and the manager of the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 jet fighter program.
He has needled Washington as “the only place in the world where someone can walk down lovers lane holding their own hand.”
Gates, who began his career as a CIA analyst, eventually did become the agency’s director under President George H.W. Bush in 1991; his earlier 1987 nomination by President Ronald Reagan was withdrawn when it became clear that the Senate would reject him on questions over how much he knew about the Iran-Contra scandal.
He retired from government service for the first time in 1993, then went on to become president of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, for four years. Bush asked him to lead the Defense Department 4 1/2 years ago. Yesterday, he was praised by his last boss at a Pentagon tribute.
‘One of the Best’
“Bob, today you’re not only one of the longest-serving secretaries of defense in American history, but it is also clear that you’ve been one of the best,” President Barack Obama said.
Obama’s plaudits are backed up in fact, said Charles Stevenson, author of the 2006 book “SecDef: The Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defense.” Stevenson has studied all 22 secretaries of defense using five criteria -- managing the department, exercising civilian control of the military and maintaining relations with the president, with others on the national security team and with Congress.
“I think enough evidence is in,” said Stevenson, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “He’s just been superb across the board by every measure. I can’t think of another secretary of defense who has played all those roles as well.”
Gates was so highly regarded by leaders in both political parties that prominent Democrats suggested him as a vice presidential candidate in 2008, a Democratic official said on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Highest Civilian Honor
Obama yesterday surprised Gates with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Robert Michael Gates came to the Pentagon in December 2006 with the matter-of-factness of his native Kansas -- attributes Obama alluded to jokingly in his remarks.
“If you look past all of Bob’s flashiness and bravado, and his sharp attire, his love for the Washington limelight,” Obama said to laughter from the audience, “then what you see is a man that I’ve come to know and respect, a humble American patriot; a man of common sense and decency; quite simply, one of our nation’s finest public servants.”
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the defense chief “infallibly, impenetrably honest.”
“He tells it straight, no bull, no fancy words,” said Mullen, whom Gates called his “battle buddy” at the Pentagon and who has been the secretary’s neighbor at a Navy housing complex in Washington. “He drilled down for details and never stopped asking us uncomfortable questions.”
One of those questions was why so many soldiers were dying in Iraq -- almost 3,500 to date from hostile action -- when a program to build more heavily armored vehicles was dragging. Gates immediately elevated the vehicle to the Pentagon’s top acquisition priority and ranks it as his proudest achievement.
Gates has asked that an image of the vehicle appear in his official portrait that will be displayed in the corridor outside the defense secretary’s office, Undersecretary for Acquisition Ashton Carter said. Carter said he sent Gates a scale model of the Navistar “MaxxPro” version yesterday as a keepsake and artist model.
Money was also shifted into MRAP armored vehicle purchases in 2009 after Gates canceled weapons programs, such as the manned vehicle component of the Army’s Future Combat Systems. Halting those programs created tensions with members of Congress, including from his own Republican Party, who often cited China as a potential adversary that was being neglected.
‘Toughness and Clarity’
As yesterday’s retirement ceremony neared, the Senate Armed Service Committee’s Democratic chairman and top Republican both offered praise for Gates. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who was in the minority opposing his confirmation as CIA director in 1991, said that as defense secretary Gates “has combined vision and thoughtfulness with toughness and clarity, and courageous, firm decision-making.” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona called him one of America’s “most impactful secretaries of defense.”
Gates and Obama developed a strong relationship. There were private disagreements over Afghanistan, Libya and budget cuts. Once a decision was taken, though, Gates offered vital support to the president.
Mullen alluded to Gates’s frankness with Obama at the Pentagon ceremony. He said Gates played the honest broker, “no matter how high or how low in the chain of command that truth needed to travel.”
Defending the President
Prior to Obama’s decision last week on the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan, Gates made clear he favored a minimal reduction in forces.
After Obama called for 10,000 troops to be withdrawn this year and 23,000 more by September 2011, Gates defended the president against critics. Ending the surge next September meant that the extra forces would be in Afghanistan twice as long as the earlier “surge” in Iraq, he said.
“I’m pretty sure he was surprised by Obama’s decision,” said Edelman, a former ambassador and a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington policy center that examines national security and defense-related issues. “He did a more effective job of defending President Obama’s decision than Obama did.”
As he leaves office, Gates has put in place a process for carrying out Obama’s decision to cut $400 billion more from defense spending in the next 12 years, a cut that comes on top of $178 billion of reductions Gates has begun. Gates has warned of the risk of hollowing out the force if cuts aren’t made carefully.
As defense secretary, Gates has expanded partnerships with countries around the world, especially in the Persian Gulf to guard against Iran. In Asia, he worked to buttress alliances in the face of China’s military modernization.
He made a splash in Brussels last month when he warned European partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that they need to pick up a bigger share of the alliance’s load. European leaders balked, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy saying Gates is going into retirement “a little bitter.”
His world travels as secretary took him to 121 countries and across 664,150 miles, according to his office.
Gates yesterday took his last flight as defense secretary home to Washington state, just north of Seattle, aboard an Air Force E-4B, a converted Boeing 747 command aircraft that carries communications gear allowing the defense secretary full contact with the president and his forces at all times.
He plans to write two books. He also has a calendar full of speech invitations.
Gates says he threw out his countdown clock when he decided to stay on with Obama. Yesterday, he reassured his wife, whom he met on a blind date 45 years ago, that his public duties were over.
“Becky, we’re really going home this time,” he said.