Let us now praise Robert Gates, the new secretary of defense, who is maybe the single best thing to happen to the Bush administration in the last several years.
This deeply experienced bureaucrat — 26 years in the CIA, once its director — does not so much dazzle with his footwork as impress with his reflective maturity. A Ph.D. who served as president of Texas A&M University, he uses his intellect to arrive at sound principles in tough circumstances and coax others to sound conclusions. You watch him, and you see someone who knows when to stand firm, when to bend and when to rescue a situation with wit.
He did this last thing when Russian President Vladimir Putin ranted at a Munich security conference in February that the United States was engaged in "unilateral, illegitimate actions" with virtually "uncontained use of military force."
"As an old Cold Warrior, one of yesterday’s speeches almost filled me with nostalgia for a less complex time. Almost," Gates responded, shedding the opportunity to bristle. "We all face many common problems and challenges that must be addressed in partnership with other countries, including Russia," he went on. "One Cold War was quite enough."
Small acts can have importance, and if the gentleness of this rejoinder and a vow to visit Moscow were hardly notable factors causing Russia’s recent, resistant stance about continuing to help Iran in its nuclear aspirations, they certainly did not get in the way. They in fact paved the way for cooperation that is vital for the interests of both nations.
Not so small a matter was Gates’ role in prompting an arrangement by which North Korea would abandon its nuclear ambitions. Despite displeased murmurings from left and right, that deal could ultimately stand as the foremost achievement of the Bush years, and historians will have little trouble discovering that Gates was crucial in making it happen.
Similarly, he has worked closely with the brilliant Gen. David Petraeus in the so-called surge strategy that has been surprisingly successful so far in Iraq, giving legitimate reason for the first time in a long time to hope for a future of reasonably stabilized conditions in that land of furious tribal terrorism. Because Gates had been a member of the Iraq Study Group looking more to retreat calculations than avenues to victory, it has surprised some observers to find him instead supporting a plan that combines aggression with an optimism that, to be sure, is appropriately encircled by extreme caution.
Three cheers are also due Gates for the tough, no-nonsense way in which he insisted on accountability at the very top when the Washington Post disclosed unacceptable treatment of outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Gone from the Army are its secretary and surgeon general. No dodging and weaving here, just the sort of direct, immediate action without which bureaucracies become more foe than friend to those they are supposed to serve. If Washington had seen more such decisiveness over the decades, we would have a far better government than we do.
Gates has not always won his fights. According to The New York Times, he urged the closing of the Guantánamo Bay terrorist prison because it had become a detriment to other war purposes, but was voted down. Too bad. Whatever one thinks of Guantánamo’s past, it can do us nothing but harm in the future, especially seeing that any essential functions can be carried out elsewhere. President Bush would be well-advised to survey what Gates has meant to the administration in other areas and heed his words on this issue.
Examiner columnist Jay Ambrose is a former editor of two daily newspapers. He may be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.com