Martin Schram: Gatesis a diamond in the rough

We interrupt our regularly scheduled rant about something else that’s wrong in Washington with some late-breaking news about something that is right — indeed, excellent — in the government.

Actually, not something but someone: a cabinet member, the last of a patriotic bipartisan breed that may soon be extinct in the nation’s capital.

Yes, our topic today is Robert Gates.

And frankly I am writing this now because I want to be sure that I have hit the send button while Gates is still working at his desk in the E-Ring of the Pentagon, where he has served as secretary of defense with equal distinction to two diametrically opposite presidents — George W. Bush (a pro-military conservative Republican) and then Barack Obama (who the outgoing White House team had just painted as an antiwar liberal who couldn’t be trusted to command the un-won wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

While I have no confirming inside intelligence, I am writing now because Gates may not have many more months in office. I think that because on Monday, he issued the sort of bold, budget-cutting plan I think he wanted to make sure he delivered before heading out the door.

We’ll get to that, but let’s start with how Gates first got the job.

First, Gates, an intelligence careerist, was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to head the CIA, but had to withdraw because of his involvement in the Reagan White House’s Iran-Contra scandal. But then the Independent Counsel’s report said Gates “was close to many figures who played significant roles in the Iran/contra affair and was in a position to have known of their activities. The evidence developed by Independent Counsel did not warrant indictment.” So Gates was nominated anew and became CIA director.

At that time, I frankly thought Gates shouldn’t have the CIA job because of what I viewed as his Iran-Contra misjudgments. But that turned out to be my misjudgment of Gates. Yes, he was wrong to have urged America to sell Iran weapons to use against Iraq, but Gates went on to demonstrate qualities that ultimately served his country impressively.

In 2002, Gates became president of Texas A&M University and turned down President George W. Bush’s offers to be the first secretary of homeland security and director of national intelligence. But when Bush asked him to succeed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, Gates answered his country’s call, left the comfort of Texas A&M to assume the no-fun, no-glory nightmare of the troubled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then, when President-elect Obama asked him to become the first defense secretary ever to stay in office when the presidency changed parties, Gates agreed. America’s inexperienced president benefitted tremendously from Gates’ wisdom and flexibility in managing the shifts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But what impressed me most was how Gates ended the sort of bureaucratic blood-sport I’d covered for decades — the Reagan national security family feuds (where Gates was a bit player) and others before and after that epic. But Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it their top priority to get along, no matter what. That benefitted the president and all of us ever since.

Gates not only fumed privately about overlaps in Pentagon intelligence efforts, taskings and studies — but he has candidly admitted so publicly. And then he moved to cut them. He also cut dozens of weapons systems, 6,100 military, civilian and contractor jobs. He also announced plans to cut the number of generals and admirals and eliminate the U.S. Joint Forces Command — the first time any defense secretary has ever tried to eliminate a major command.

So it is that the secretary who inherited run amok strategies and spending that were rushed into place after September 11, 2001, has now built for his eventual successor a dowry of cultural change.

As Gates said recently, “The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint.”

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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