Robert Gates' last day at Pentagon: three reasons he'll be missed

If Defense Secretary Robert Gates feels any twinge of wistfulness when he departs the Pentagon on Thursday, it probably won't last long. Even during the Bush years, Mr. Gates spoke often of the clock in his office by which he counted down the days until he could retire to his beloved Washington State.

When President Obama asked him to stay on as defense secretary, Gates made no secret that he did so out of public duty, not an affinity for Washington, D.C. But Washington insiders certainly had an affinity for Gates. Here are three reasons America’s longest-serving secretary of Defense will be missed – and legacies that many hope will last after he's gone.

Jason Reed/Reuters
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is seen during an interview with reporters, his final interview as Defense Secretary, at the Pentagon near Washington, June 29. Gates will be replaced by former CIA Director Leon Panetta.

1. Candor

Jason Reed/AFP/Newscom
Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivers a speech to the Security and Defence Agenda think tank in Brussels on June 10. Gates chided NATO allies for their lack of military spending, warning that the alliance faces a 'dismal' future without a stronger commitment.

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.

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