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A Late Choice, Made Under Considerable Pressure, But Made Correctly

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One of the inherent difficulties of a political system that appoints its own in every election is that it loses the talents of some very good people. Occasionally an FBI director is held over. Once in a while a CIA chief keeps his job, but it’s unusual.

Such bureaucratic churning is a necessary part of changing our national underwear, but there are weaknesses and the more polarized our politics become, the more those weaknesses show. Certainly in these times of perceived and actual threat to our home turf, learning curves themselves are a weakness. It’s been mostly curves and damned little learning as the White House seems unable to get anything right.

I haven’t been much impressed by this administration’s choices for key positions within its government and it’s evident that the country hasn’t been happy either. Rumsfeld, Cheney, Feith, Wolfowitz, Chertoff, the list goes on and the thread that connects them is one of incomprehensible incompetence.
The first Harvard Business School presidency runs itself like pranksters from Monty Python.
They don’t do what top people do. Top-notch administrators talk to as wide a group as they can find and they listen. Excellence is marked by the confidence to seek out conflicting opinion and test it against current reality. Winners want to know everything there is to know about the game, while duds consistently hold their cards close to the chest.

We’re watching as two terms of losers drift down to the last sour dregs, Gonzales and Chertoff. The rest are discredited and gone, Karl Rove the most recent big name to hit the road and one wonders now who George Bush talks to. Maybe the White House paintings, as Richard Nixon is said to have done.

It seems to me there is but one obvious man of character (excepting Colin Powell, whose character ultimately failed him) to emerge in the whole sorry six years. He is a late choice, made under considerable pressure to find someone the Senate would approve.

Not an insider in the Bush sense of the word, Robert Gates, the reluctant Bush choice to replace Donald Rumsfeld, does more listening than talking. Gates is an ex-CIA Director with 26 years in the spook business. The only man ever to rise from entry level to Director within the agency, Gates is not not exactly a flavor-of-the-week.
Offered the position of United States Director of National Intelligence, after considerable thought he turned it down. A first pick to head Homeland Security, Gates had enough sense (and sense of the skewed organizational chart) to turn that down as well, to remain President of Texas A&M.
(Wikipedia) In January 2004, Gates co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force on U.S. relations towards Iran. Among the task force's primary recommendation was to directly engage Iran on a diplomatic level regarding Iranian nuclear technology. Key points included a negotiated position that would allow Iran to develop its nuclear program in exchange for a commitment from Iran to use the program only for peaceful means.

At the time of his nomination by President George W. Bush to the position of Secretary of Defense, Gates was also a member of the Iraq Study Group, also called the Baker Commission, which was expected to issue its report in November 2006, following the mid-term election on November 7. He was replaced by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.
Gates has been both sober and restrained in his public commentary. But he was quick to act when the Walter Reed scandal broke and he was key to the withdrawal of support that sent Peter Pace (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) on his way. It does not seem like Gates left Texas A&M to become a caretaker secretary at the Pentagon.
(Washington Post) The longer Mr. Gates is in office the more the casualty toll in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to weigh on him, aides said. On a visit to an American Army base in Kuwait this month, he walked in shirt sleeves on a sweltering evening through the “boneyard,” a vast field of hundreds of mangled Humvees, Bradleys and other armored vehicles destroyed in Iraq. It left him in a somber mood, aides who were present said.

Tears welled in his eyes and his voice quavered during a speech last month to a group of marines when he spoke of Maj. Douglas A. Zembiec, who fought in Fallujah in 2004, then volunteered for another tour in Iraq, where he was killed in May. “Every night I write notes to the families of young Americans like Doug Zembiec,” he said, trying to regain his composure. “For you and for me, they are not names on a press release, or numbers updated on a Web site. They are our country’s sons and daughters.”

That’s a long way from ‘stuff happens’ and the electronic signature that Rumsfeld attached to condolence notes he didn’t author. Which may not make a man a great man, but gives evidence that he is humbled by his responsibility and emotionally attached to its consequences.

We haven’t seen much of that from the public face of this administration.

Gates is a man who’s operated at sensitive levels in Washington for decades. It’s a tough town in which to sustain a career, but there are many like Gates, else how would we muddle through? Not without controversy himself, he was tarred by the Iran Contra brush and yet it may be his very proximity to that affair that moderates his views toward Iran today.

In any case, it seems (to me) he came to the Bush appointment not out of willingness to carry out a doctrine, but more from a sense of duty to Americans mired in an unpopular and probably unwinnable war. The Defense Secretary believes, as do we all, that how we get out of Iraq is a truly pivotal question in an administration battered by incompetence, bad decisions and a total loss of war-fighting financial controls.

With a life of duty to his country behind him and the presidency of a major university ahead, one can only admire the selflessness that brought Bob Gates back to Washington. As a severe critic of this administration and most of its appointed officials, it seems obligatory to speak up when George Bush finally picks the right man for a job.

Remembering, it is also a job that no man can possibly do satisfactorily.
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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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