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In Establishment Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates enjoys a charmed life based on a charming persona. The Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) is always ready with fulsome praise for his "candor" and "leadership" -- and even for his belated recognition that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were nuts.
"Certain kinds of public candor are so unexpected that they have the shock value of a gunshot at the opera," purred a Boston Globe editorial about Gates's admission that only a crazy person would commit U.S. ground forces to wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The editorial then lamented Gates's planned retirement later this year and urged President Barack Obama "to look hard for a successor with some of Gates's unusual leadership qualities." Unusual leadership qualities, indeed.
Without doubt, it was surprising when Gates inserted the following comment into the tenth paragraph of a speech last Friday at West Point:
"But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should "have his head examined,' as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it."
However, those of us who have known Gates for many years, including some of us old colleagues from his CIA days, couldn't help but wonder what he was up to, what was the ulterior motive behind his decision to put distance between himself and these two misbegotten wars.
The Bob Gates we knew was a bright and brightly ambitious careerist whose greatest skill might have been to sense quickly where the prevailing winds of power were blowing and position himself accordingly. He was the consummate windsock.
So, having overseen the two wars for more than four years now, was Gates signaling that he knew the conflicts would come to no good end and thus was he creating a public record for himself as something of a war skeptic?
Was he preparing for his next career move, an elevation to a Washington "wise man" to be consulted by presidents and other important personages in his later years while being named to prestigious commissions?
What was Gates thinking?
I'm willing to acknowledge that Gates is bright enough to arrive at the same sensible conclusion that MacArthur derived from his hard experience in the Korean War -- that the United States must avoid future land wars in Asia.
Gates also might be following in the footsteps of other secretaries of defense, including Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, who went wobbly on the efficacy of warfare. After all, Gates got Rumsfeld's job in 2006, in part, because Rumsfeld questioned President George W. Bush's plan to escalate in Iraq.
Maybe the wool of self-deception was finally lifted from Gates's eyes, too.
In 2006, Gates might have been understandably blinded by the allure of returning to center stage in Washington, after cooling his heels during the Clinton administration and the first six years of the second Bush presidency, working mostly at Texas A&M, including a stint as the school's president.
For someone with Gates's intense ambition, it would be hard not to jump at the prospect of running the Defense Department, especially in wartime. He has always claimed that he took the post reluctantly, saddened to leave behind the Aggies, but that claim never washed with those of us who knew Gates well.
Urges for Surges