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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But herein lies a contradiction about Gates. As much as he says he loathes Beltway politics and society, it's what defines him. He often jokes that the first six months in Washington you wonder how you got there, the second six months you wonder how everyone else got there, and the next six months you spend trying to get out of there. Funny when he tells it in the right crowd, it sometimes falls flat with military audiences. Either way, it's pure Gates shtick: making a show of despising Washington, while quietly working the city as few can.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, he shows genuine feeling for the troops. He personally handwrites letters to each family of those killed overseas. Like the episode in the Kuwait "boneyard," the secretary is frequently moved when speaking about the sacrifices of troops – whom he sometimes refers to as the "kids."
Ms. Long, a former assistant secretary of Defense, says Gates's leadership is unique in her experience: "He was not only a master of anticipating what the bureaucracy will do in a given situation, but on several occasions when, on a personal level, others were suffering, he expressed real sympathy and empathy."
There's much similar gushing across the capital about his abilities. Rumsfeld had so poisoned the well that Congress fell all over itself praising the new Defense secretary for his candor, integrity, and lack of combativeness. Though Gates may loathe Congress's lack of civility.
The Obama campaign liked what it saw and, after the election last year, the president-elect summoned Gates to a secret meeting at a fire station near Ronald Reagan National Airport to "re-up" the secretary. Accepting, Gates became the first Defense secretary in US history to be asked to stay on by a new administration.
Obama had promised during the campaign to draw down forces in Iraq and to fix Afghanistan. But if Bush turned to Gates as Iraq's "Mr. Fix-it," then Obama was turning to him to change the equation in Afghanistan.
Put simply, there are two poles in Washington: the counterinsurgency experts, or COIN-istas, who believe Afghanistan's deteriorating security can only be reversed by adding tens of thousands of troops – perhaps as many as 80,000; and those who believe US interests in Afghanistan are few, and the best way to keep it on a low simmer is to employ a counterterrorism-like model – using drones, bombs, and special forces teams to keep Al Qaeda at bay. The debate has become protracted, with military commanders like Gen. Stanley McChrystal politely urging the commander in chief to make a decision soon.
GATES'S SIGNAL TO THE DECIDER – Obama – will be decisive, say observers. His position will be informed by his own political instinct for timing, but also by his impeccably thorough listening process.
Richard Haass, a former senior director on the National Security Council, remembers Gates's knack for running a meeting. In his book "War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars," Mr. Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote about Gates's leadership skills and noted that he would allow people to be heard – but not to filibuster.
"Bob Gates ran a meeting as well as anyone I've ever worked with," says Haass, reading directly from a page in his book.
But Gates is fussy about preparation, demanding that his staff cancel a briefing if he hasn't been provided the right reading materials beforehand, says one senior officer who worked closely with Gates. "It would make him crazy."