Afghanistan war decision: how Robert Gates thinks
Pentagon chief Robert Gates is the swing vote in Obama's decision on the Afghanistan war.
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Gates is a good example of the oft-cited Washington truism: The ones who talk, don't know; the ones who don't talk, do know.Skip to next paragraph
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But Gates, who declined a request for a Monitor interview, has talked some about Afghanistan. In the past, he has expressed concern about the size of the American "footprint" – worried that too many forces could look a lot like an occupation. Yet he has also said that the long-term needs of Afghanistan – good governance, economic opportunity, and a strong indigenous force – won't magically appear without the help of the US military stabilizing the country. In recent days, he's dodged questions about just what the noises in his head are saying. Asked by a reporter on a plane with him to Asia late last month "where he was" on the troop surge idea, Gates talked about the legitimacy of the Afghan government. Two days later, asked the same question after a meeting of NATO defense ministers, Gates wriggled: "I was in a listening mode."
It's not that he's slippery, just self-disciplined, say those who know him.
"He's been inside the Beltway his entire life and he knows how to play the cards and when to play them, and he will only telegraph to the decider," says one retired senior officer who served under Gates. "Rummy had his circle of good buddies who were easy to identify. Don't know that about Gates."
The Defense chief is not given to snap decisions, recalls Rob McKee, who served with Gates on the corporate board of Parker Drilling Company before he was named Defense secretary. But he says Gates does act decisively after a genuine effort to get as many facts as possible. And, adds Mr. McKee, who served as an adviser to the Iraqi oil ministry between 2003 and 2004, Gates – a registered Republican – takes pains never to show his politics.
"Who he is, his track record, his style, his intelligence, his bipartisanship, his experience and his proven low-key leadership style all would argue that he would be a much more credible broker than just about anyone," McKee wrote in an e-mail. "I bet he's doing his best to help come up with as right an answer as is possible."
And when he shares that conclusion with the president, he'll have great sway, says Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an admirer of Gates: "[He] is going to have a major say in this because ... he has the confidence of the president, he has the confidence of Congress, and he has an extraordinarily important position in this decision."
LITTLE ABOUT GATES ON THE OUTSIDE betrays the astute student and dealmaker on the inside. By all appearances, he's as vanilla as they come: Stout and round-faced with precision-parted hair and a preference for white shirts, he has a nasal twang from his native Kansas. He goes in for jigsaw puzzles over sports, and has a strong taste for meat and potatoes sometimes even in the most exotic locales.
Career arc of a Pentagon chief
• Born 1943, Wichita, Kan.
• BA in history ,1965, The College of William & Mary; Master’s in history, Indiana University, 1966; Doctorate in Russian and Soviet history, Georgetown University, 1974
• Air Force,1967-68
• CIA Soviet analyst, 1968-74
• National Security Council staff under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, 1974-79
• CIA deputy director, 1982
• Deputy national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush (1989–91)
• CIA director under President George H.W. Bush, 1991-93
• Interim dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, 1999-2001
• President of Texas A&M University, 2002-06
• Secretary of Defense (2006–present) for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama
Source: OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE