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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His other ravenous appetite, say aides, is for information – and he sets aside time every day to read (right now, says Gates, he's into Douglas Brinkley's "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America"). He has a weakness for low-end escapist movies – such as "Iron Man" and "Wolverine" – but also recently saw and liked the more realistic "The Hurt Locker," about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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Gates himself jokes about the unassuming figure he cuts – once saying he was more like Austin Powers than James Bond when he flopped as a young spy and was funneled instead to the less glamorous toils of an intelligence analyst.
So inoffensive is his personality that even his political enemies seem to find no purchase for personal attack.
But it wasn't always that way. Earlier in his Washington career, Gates was thought to have played an active role in the Iran-contra affair, derailing his first confirmation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But an independent investigation cleared him, and President George H.W. Bush renominated him in 1991.
Cracks in Gates's bland facade often reveal the emotional complexity that makes him tick. He's so intensely compassionate that he can easily become choked up or cry. He's not without ego, say those who work with him, and they notice that when he's loosened up – notably after his iron-clad rituals of predinner cocktail and postdinner "cigar walk" – he enjoys holding forth among groups of people, telling jokes or stories from his illustrious career, less interested in a conversational give-and-take than in his own thoughts. And his temper, while usually contained verbally, can come out in fierce glares.
It's not that Gates never makes mistakes. As a member of the national security team in the late 1980s, he was in part responsible for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that, it could be argued, led to it becoming a haven for Al Qaeda. But he'll admit to his mistakes, as in a speech last year when he acknowledged the US failing – and his role in it.
"The voice of Bob Gates is not the voice of God – and Bob Gates is the first to acknowledge that," says one Hill staffer.
His career arc also is full of that complexity. The Defense secretary now overseeing two war theaters not only served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War but also protested that war in a 1970 march against the Cambodia offensive.
Gates has served under eight presidents and turned down President George W. Bush's offers to run the Department of Homeland Security and later to be director of National Intelligence. He cited a reluctance to return to public life, but probably was awaiting a more important call.
He soon got it. After a bruising midterm election in 2006, Mr. Bush concluded that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had to go, and Gates was wooed away from his post as president of Texas A&M University to replace Rumsfeld.
He portrayed himself as a reluctant hero – wrenched from what he called the best job he'd ever had. He often referred to the stopwatch a deputy gave him that counted backward to the day when the Bush term would end and he'd be free to retire once again, to drive his SUV in the mountains and wooded groves of the Pacific Northwest, where he and his wife, Becky, own two homes and have two grown children living nearby.
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