Washington: On his last day on the job, Defense Secretary Robert Gates received the nation’s highest civilian honor and unstinting praise from President Obama and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The initial and official view of Gates’ tenure as Defense Secretary was overwhelmingly positive, with President Obama leading the way.
“You see, if you look past all of Bob’s flashiness and bravado and his sharp attire, his love for the Washington limelight then what you see is a man that I’ve come to know and respect — a humble American patriot; a man of common sense and decency; quite simply, one of our nation’s finest public servants,” Obama said. He went on to tell the Pentagon audience that “it is also clear that you’ve been one of the best” defense secretaries in American history.
Obama ticked off the reasons: “When the outcome of the war in Iraq was in doubt, Bob Gates presided over the extraordinary efforts that helped restore order. Over the past two and a half years, we’ve removed more than 100,000 troops from Iraq, ended our combat mission and are responsibly ending that war.
“When the fight against al Qaeda and our efforts in Afghanistan needed new focus, Bob Gates helped us devise the strategy that has finally put al Qaeda on a path to defeat and ensures that Afghanistan never again becomes a source for attacks against our nation.
“When institutional inertia kept funding systems our troops didn’t need, Bob Gates launched a war on waste — challenging conventional wisdom with courage and conviction, speaking hard truths and saving hundreds of billions of dollars that can be invested in a 21st century military.”
The president made a point of Gates’ commitment to troops in the field: “Bob Gates made it his mission to make sure this department is serving our troops in the field as well as they serve us. And today we see the lifesaving difference he made — in the mine-resistant vehicles and the unmanned aircraft, the shorter medevac times in Afghanistan, in our determination to give our wounded warriors the world-class care they deserve.”
One interesting tidbit: Gates is reportedly insisting that an MRAP be pictured with him in his official portrait.
For his part, Gates offered an insight that may grow in significance with time. “The transition from the Bush to the Obama administration was the first of its kind from one political party to another during war in nearly 40 years. The collegiality, thoroughness, and professionalism of the Bush-Obama transition were of great benefit to the country, and were a tribute to the character and judgment of both Presidents,” he said.
As someone who covered Gates during that period, it was remarkable how seamless the transition was, with virtually no conflicts reported and little of the elbowing that often occurs when one administration replaces another. It was especially striking given how radically different were the policy visions of the true believers from both sides.
Now Leon Panetta takes the reins and must come to grips with the tight fiscal situation, the growing resistance to the war in Afghanistan and the need to reshape the military after 10 years at war.