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Afghanistan war decision: how Robert Gates thinks

Pentagon chief Robert Gates is the swing vote in Obama's decision on the Afghanistan war.

(Page 5 of 5)

It's not the highest compliment ever paid to an individual, but in the world of Washington bureaucracy, it's high praise. And for Bob Gates, it fits.

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One of his chief roles is to demand accountability in a building peopled by career bureaucrats who know instinctively that they will outlast any civilian overseer – unless he beats them to the punch.

Gates has famously removed more than a half-dozen senior officers and civilian secretaries for underwhelming performance or just plain arrogance. Just ask Fran Harvey, the former Army secretary whom Gates fired over a Washington Post exposé of the squalid conditions of soldiers recovering from war wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Harder for even some of Gates's most die-hard fans was the summary firing of Gen. David McKiernan. Gates handpicked him to be the top commander in Afghanistan. By all accounts a fabulous officer with skill, intellect, and integrity, McKiernan was an armor officer by trade, and Gates concluded that he lacked the knack for counterinsurgency and had to go. Few dispute that the mission needed a new kind of blood – but Pentagon brass watched in horror in their E-ring offices as Gates announced McKiernan's firing on live TV.

More often, Gates's style of accountability is far more mundane. Last year, for example, he sent a memo to the Army secretary's office and when he hadn't heard anything back by the deadline he'd directed, Gates sent the memo again. This time it had a message handwritten across the top that couldn't have been plainer: "Pete," Gates scrawled in black ink, "Why hasn't this been answered yet?" A staffer who worked in the office recalled the startled reaction: "It was like a grenade went off inside the office."

Gates wanted answers and he didn't expect to have to wait for them.

That instinct has won him friends and enemies on Capitol Hill after he pushed through a $534 billion reform budget this year that cut many sacred cows (the presidential helicopter with a kitchen) and forced the services to add other programs that weren't seen as critical (dramatic expansion of the drone program).

Gates has marketed his brand of reform with a message that resonates: Buy stuff to support the two wars in which the US is engaged – particularly for troops fighting in the field – and ease up on the massive spending the Pentagon has allowed for rainy-day wars, like one with China. His ending the production of the $140-million-a-copy F-22 Raptor stealth fighter was an oft-cited case in point. Arguing that the US didn't need more than 187 planes to fight a notional war when, with limited resources, the Pentagon should be spending money to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates's version of common sense prevailed and he has – so far – successfully ended the program.

Instead he has focused the Pentagon's budget on things that many believe it more apparently needs – like those bomb-resistant trucks he wanted that day in Kuwait.

At a recent Washington conference, former Republican Congressman John McHugh, Obama's pick as secretary of the Army, cracked a joke to introduce Gates: "When Bob Gates changes a light bulb at the Pentagon, it's the building that rotates."

Inside, Gates may have felt the joke rather apt. At the podium, he accepted the characterization without apology.

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