Gates was liked for his willingness to say what was obvious but was, vexingly, often left unsaid by Washington politicos – at least publicly. More notably, he seemed open to being on the receiving end of candor, too. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing early in his tenure, Gates made clear that he would speak truth to power, even when the television cameras were rolling. Asked during the height of the Iraqi insurgency if the United States was winning the war there, Gates answered, simply, “No.”
He is no dummy, though. At his final press conference with Pentagon reporters, Gates gave this answer when asked whether the US is winning the war in Afghanistan: “I have learned a few things in 4-1/2 years, and one of them is to try to stay away from loaded words like ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’ ”
Still, he aired some frustrations – both past and present – on his way out the door. He warned of “a dim if not dismal future” for NATO if it doesn’t shape up, and serenely told lawmakers livid over the perceived duplicity of Pakistani officials that “most governments lie to each other – that’s the way business gets done.”
He said in an exit interview with Politico that “one of the reasons it’s probably time for me to leave is that sometimes too much experience can get in the way, and you can get too cautious.” He added that his experience may “be making me more cautious than I ought to be.” But caution coupled with decades of experience is precisely what most Americans hope for in their leaders, his boosters note. Gates acknowledged his own pivotal role during internal Bush White House debates about American adventurism, particularly in Iran, to The New York Times. “The only thing I guess I would say to that is, I hope I’ve prevented us from doing some dumb things over the past 4-1/2 years,” he said.