America’s twenty-second Secretary of Defense came to prominence in the world of intelligence, having risen up through the ranks of the analytical division of the CIA. To anyone familiar with the intractable problems besetting that side of that agency, this was a background that at the very minimum raised questions about whether Gates would be a yes-man, a timid bureaucrat, or an empty suit.
But back in mid-February, Max Boot gave Gates a favorable review here, citing his handling of himself at a gathering of defense officials in Munich. We’ve now had another month of our new SecDef. It is time to ask again: how is he shaping up?
The war is issue number one. Prior to getting his job, Gates served on the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker, which counseled begging Iran and Syria for assistance—“dialogue” was the code word for this used in the report—in extricating ourselves from the conflict and abandoning Iraq to the wolves: the U.S. “must adjust its role in Iraq to encourage the Iraqi people to take control of their own destiny.”
But Gates was on CBS’s Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer yesterday and made a convincing case for national patience with another direction entirely—the current troop surge:
The way I would characterize it is so far, so good. It’s very early. General Petraeus, the commander out there, has said that it’ll probably be summer before we know whether we’re being successful or not. But I would say that the Iraqis are meeting the commitments that they have made to us. They have made the appointments, the troops that they have promised are showing up, they are allowing operations in all neighborhoods, there is very little political interference with military operations. So here, at the very beginning, the commitments that have been made seem to be being kept.
On Face the Nation, Gates was also exceptionally deft in disarming Democratic calls for withdrawal, as called for in a bill before the House of Representatives. His posture here was disarmingly respectful—even as it threw a punch.
I believe everybody involved in this debate is patriotic and looking for the best thing for America. I think most people agree that, across the political spectrum, that leaving Iraq in chaos would be a mistake, a disaster for the United States, and so we’re all wrestling with what’s the best way to bring about a result that serves the long-term interests, not only of the Iraqi people but of the United States. . . . With respect to the specific bill in the House, the concern I have is that if you have specific deadlines and very strict conditions, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, for our commanders to achieve—to achieve their objectives. And frankly, as I read it, the House bill is more about withdrawal, regardless of the circumstances on the ground.
Then there was a side issue that, to judge by the intensity of Schieffer’s questioning, was to CBS not a side issue at all. Last week, General Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that homosexual acts are immoral. Gates was pressed hard about this by Schieffer: “a lot of gay people are saying that that is a slur on thousands of people who are serving in the military right now”; and shouldn’t the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy be revised?
Gates got a bit testy answering this, but acquitted himself well:
Look, I’ve got a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, challenges in Iran and North Korea and elsewhere, global war on terror, three budget bills totaling $715 billion. I think I’ve got quite a lot on my plate.
What Gates said about progress in the war on Iraq can be said about him: “So far, so good. It’s very early.”