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

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.

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.

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

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

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
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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