President Barack Obama said farewell to top adviser and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today, calling him one of the nation’s finest public servant and a man who was willing to give voice to “hard truths.”
Gates is “a humble American patriot, a man of common sense and decency,” Obama said during a ceremony at the Pentagon as the defense chief steps down. “To know Bob is to know his profound sense of duty.”
Gates, 67, served as the 22nd secretary of defense for 4 1/2 years, two of them under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama persuaded Gates to stay on as the new president wrestled with winding down the war in Iraq and developing a new strategy in Afghanistan.
Obama said Gates chose “citizenship over partisanship” by serving presidents of both parties. “I believe the life of Bob Gates is a lesson especially to young Americans, a lesson that public service is an honorable calling,” he said.
Gates was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The award was “a big surprise” to Gates. Referring to the secret operation that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Gates told Obama that he had learned that “you’re getting pretty good at this covert ops stuff.”
Gates is being replaced by former congressman and CIA Director Leon Panetta as the nation’s 23rd defense secretary.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in opening the ceremony that Gates won the respect of the military with his candor and his loyalty, calling him “infallibly, impenetrably honest.”
“He tells it straight, no bull,” Mullen said.
In assessing strategy, whether for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or planning for purchases of weapons systems, Mullen said Gates “made us think about things we hadn’t considered.”
Gates summed up the highlights of his years at the Pentagon in remarks May 27 at the U.S. Naval Academy.
When he took over in December 2006, it was “the toughest stretch of the Iraq war” and “casualties were at their highest, and prospects of success uncertain at best,” Gates said. “The Taliban were making their comeback in Afghanistan, and history’s most notorious terrorist was still at large.”
Now, he said, “Iraq has a real chance at a peaceful and democratic future; in Afghanistan, the Taliban momentum has been halted and reversed; and Osama bin Laden is finally where he belongs.”
West Point Speech
Gates, preparing for his final months in office, reviewed Iraq and Afghanistan in a speech at West Point on Feb. 25 and had this advice:
“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
He began his public service career in 1966 as an intelligence officer at the CIA, an agency he would later direct under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. He was president of Texas A&M University before returning to the government in December 2006.
In his last official trip earlier this month, he told NATO allies in a June 10 speech that the defense alliance risks a “collective military irrelevance” unless nations contribute more to its operations. French President Nicolas Sarkozy responded that the remarks were those of a “bitter” man about to retire.
Gates defended $400 billion in reduced Pentagon spending over 12 years, warning Congress June 15 that it means “real cuts,” not just finding efficiencies. Still, he said, a smaller, capable military is better than a larger “hollow” one.
As head of the world’s most powerful military, Gates often paid tribute to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who were at the center of danger, people he often called “family.” One of his achievements during his tenure was to better protect U.S. forces from roadside bombs.
“As I come to the end of my time in this post,” he told a Memorial Day audience May 30 at Arlington National Cemetery, “it is up to us to be worthy of their sacrifice, in the decisions we make, the priorities we set, the support we provide to troops, veterans and their families.
“For the rest of my life, I will keep these brave patriots and their loved ones in my heart and in my prayers.”