In an exclusive interview, Robert Gates, the first U.S. defense secretary to serve both a Republican and a Democratic president, tells military writer Fred Kaplan that he hopes to leave office next year, possibly as early as January, but certainly by the end of 2011.
"It would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," he says. "This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."
Gates, according to Kaplan's profile of the secretary for Foreign Policy, has "changed the way the Pentagon does business and the military fights wars more than any defense secretary since Robert McNamara" in less than four years at the Pentagon's helm -- and he has "extraordinary influence" on President Barack Obama, despite their vastly different personal histories.
Gates also shares, for the first time, the details of his summer 2009 turnabout on Afghanistan, the war that he knows will define his legacy. An article by military historian Frederick Kagan, arguing that the U.S. military invasion was nothing like that of the Soviets and that comparisons between the two interventions are fatally flawed, changed the defense secretary's mind about the war.
But, Gates adds, if there are no concrete signs of progress with the recent U.S. troop surge, then he will recommend a change of course for Obama's year-end Afghan strategy review. "We're just not going to plunge ahead with exactly the same strategy if it's clear it's not working," Gates tells Kaplan.
The interview was conducted July 12 in Gates's office at the Pentagon, several weeks before he announced a sweeping series of cuts to key programs, including the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Virginia. Excerpts:
Fred Kaplan: You may remember the last time I was here, which was late in 2007. You had one of these countdown meters. And I asked you at the time -- I said, you know, there are some people on the Hill who would like you to stay for whatever the next term is. And this line of yours has been quoted a fair amount. You said, "Well, I never say never, but the circumstances under which that would happen are inconceivable to me." "Inconceivable" is a pretty absolute word. So what happened? Why are you ... here? Why did you stay?
Robert Gates: Once there started being speculation around that time that I might be asked to stay no matter who was elected, I confess that I started what ended up being eight- or nine-months-long covert action. And it was to try and build a wall of clarity that I did not want to stay high enough that nobody would ever ask me.
FK: (Laughs.) Well, "inconceivable" goes quite a ways up there.
RG: And I, you know, I was very consistent for a long period there in saying that, because I really didn't want to be asked, knowing that if I were asked, I would say, "Yes." For the same reason I never hesitated -- you know, I wrestled with the [director of national intelligence] job a couple of weeks back in January of 2005. The instant [National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley called me about taking this job, I said, "Yes." I just -- in the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, "No."
And I felt the same way going into 2008 -- that if somebody asked, I worried a lot about the baton getting dropped in the changeover between administrations. And so I knew if the president, whoever was elected president, asked me to stay that I would say, "Yes." Now, you know, the timing was always sort of vague in my mind: six months, a year, just to provide a smooth transition and so on -- [it] ended up being longer than that.