World Denver lassoed another top tier speaker for its Denver luncheon this week, serving up former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates along with the usual rubber chicken. Since leaving the Obama administration, Gates has assumed a position as Chancellor at William & Mary College and written a memoir covering his five years (2006-11) as Defense Secretary for Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama. He enjoys the distinction of being the only Defense Secretary to have survived a change in administrations. Of course he was still in the midst of mopping up two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while attempting to manage the unknown unknowns left behind by his predecessor, Don Rumsfeld, when 2008 arrived. Gates has served as a national security utility infielder for eight presidents, running the CIA, serving at the National Security Agency and helping design the invasion strategy for Desert Storm. While serving as President of Texas A&M in 2005 he was appointed to the Iraq Study Group that recommended a troop surge.
Gates’ remarks were largely a recycle of material from his book, which was promptly seized, by partisans following its release a few months ago, in order to trash either Bush or Obama as they preferred. Gates is a remarkably candid speaker, who clearly has far more respect for his previous bosses than he does for Congress. He expressed his satisfaction at being out of Washington, where “…Lover’s lane is crowded with solo hikers holding their own hand.” He acknowledged he was usually treated well in hearings and by the press, but found that, “Members of Congress respond to TV lights and cameras the same way werewolves respond to moonlight.” He had never met either Bush or Obama before they asked him to serve at Defense. While they are two entirely different personalities, he observed he had also worked for both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. There is a small fraternity of Washington uber-managers who command respect from both sides of the aisle.
When deficiencies in the Air Force’s management of our nuclear inventory first surfaced several years ago Gates recruited the recently deceased James Schlesinger to clean up the mess. Lee Hamilton, James Baker and our own Gary Hart are also often recruited for these thankless investigations. It seems probable Gates will be returning to Washington in the near future as a designated wise man. While an undergraduate at Georgetown, Gates studied Russian history and has few kind things to say about Vladimir Putin. “When I looked in his eyes what I saw was a stone, cold killer. He won’t rest until he has a pro-Russian government in Kiev,” he predicted. “And there isn’t much we can do about that.” He was also exceedingly doubtful that the Arab Spring uprisings can lead to positive outcomes. Absent civil society and democratic infrastructure, most revolutions, with the exception of our own, have produced little but chaos during their first decade, he observed, and no one should expect anything better in this case where four separate civil conflicts (theological, political, ethnic and economic) are sorting themselves out simultaneously. Paraphrasing Clint Eastwood’s statement that, “A man should know his limitations,” Gates indicated that great powers can exercise little influence over the course of these continuing conflicts. “It’s a lot easier to start wars than it is to finish them,” he noted. There will be continuing trouble for decades as evolutionary change slowly drags these medieval societies into the 21st century. “We have entered too readily into other people’s quarrels even when we were profoundly ignorant of the motives and history of our chosen adversaries,” he concluded. It’s hard to argue with that.
Gates has obviously developed a close and abiding bond with the young men and women he was responsible for placing in harm’s way. When problems were reported at Walter Reed Hospital he moved swiftly to have them corrected. This allegiance to his troops extends to making arrangements to be buried among them when the time arrives. He will be welcome. Duty, decency and competency were hallmarks of his stewardship — an American first. We could use more just like him.