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Robert Gates – Bureaucrat Unbound

When, in a recent conversation, I noted that he seemed gleefully outspoken these days, Gates offered a twinkly smile and said, "What are they going to do, fire me?" 

Joe Klein profiles the canny old bureaucrat who has taken on the system since he came back to DC to clean up the mess in Iraq. And who has become openly assertive since he’s found a surprising comfort level with his new boss. Klein even drops a few hints that Gates may be sticking around the Obama Administration longer than the two years he’d originally planned.

On the doctrinal issues that pit the COINistas against the COINtras, Gates has argued that all he’s looking for is a balance that will assure the US can fight the wars it’s in. 

He insists that logic, not doctrine, has driven everything he has done as Secretary of Defense. The highest priority was supporting the troops. "He resourced the important bureaucratic knife fights," said one senior Army officer. "He sided with us on MRAPs [mine-resistant vehicles] and unmanned drones, and increased intelligence, and more helicopters. Those should have been no-brainers, but it had been a real struggle to fund them before Gates." A military intelligence officer who was an Iraq specialist told me he had been pleading for more resources throughout the Rumsfeld years: "Iraq was Rumsfeld’s fourth highest priority, after China, North Korea and Iran," he said. "But Gates called me in and asked, ‘What do you need?’ And he gave us everything we requested." Senior combatant commanders say these decisions, no less than the new tactics and increase in troops, helped change the course in Iraq.

And that, according to the Secretary of Defense, is the rationale for his new Pentagon budget; Bush had funded his wars outside the usual budget process, via so-called supplemental appropriations. Gates has included the war funding in his base budget, "so the programs will be institutionalized and the various services will fight for them." He insists that he is not abandoning the fancy hardware and future gizmos that his predecessors and Congress loved. "The things we’ve cut," he told me, "wouldn’t have been in the budget even if we had $50 billion more to spend. They were programs that simply were unnecessary or weren’t working."

No respectable A-list journalist would complete a DC power profile without a little inside-baseball gossip. Klein doesn’t disappoint:

[Gates] is, according to several sources, the most respected voice in National Security Council debates. The President is said to love his unadorned manner. Much of which is attributable to the fact that, in the self-proclaimed twilight of his public career, Gates has emerged as that most exotic of Washington species — the bureaucrat unbound, candid and fearless. He tells members of Congress what he really thinks about their pet programs. He upends Pentagon priorities, demotes the military-industrial hardware pipeline and promotes the immediate needs of the troops on the front line. He fires high-ranking subordinates without muss or controversy…

Gates originally had planned to retire after a year or so, but he seems to have settled in, found a level of comfort and influence with the Obama Democrats that he never quite expected. "I don’t do maintenance," Gates told me. "I would never do a job just to sustain the status quo. I like to go into an institution that’s already good and do everything I can to make it better."

Worth reading the whole thing, especially for the Gates v Rumsfeld and Gates v Congress bits. Not to be read if you have high blood pressure and tales of Pentagon runarounds get you stirred up.

Cross-posted at American Footprints

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