All told, Congress approved 31 of Gates's 33 cuts. The other two -- the C-17 cargo plane and an alternative engine for the F-35 fighter -- Gates has vowed to kill this year. Gates's office calculates that his cuts will have saved $330 billion over the lifetime of those 31 programs, though such estimates, especially when drawn over not just years but decades, are very speculative.
Gates won these fights for several reasons. The first was that he is Gates: a Republican hawk (albeit a relatively moderate one) and therefore immune to charges that he's "soft on defense."
Second, he had the Joint Chiefs behind him, and that was because he fully consulted them at every step of the review. This is where Gates differs not only from Rumsfeld but from McNamara, the systems analyst who stormed into a Pentagon where no general had ever had to make a reasoned argument on behalf of a weapons system ("it's a military requirement" usually sufficed) and imposed massive changes. Gates knew that, to make change stick, the officers carrying it out had to feel they had a stake in the decision. By contrast, when President Jimmy Carter and his defense secretary, Harold Brown, killed the B-1 bomber, the Air Force program managers, who hadn't been consulted, didn't really kill it; they tacked on some cosmetic changes and called it the "cruise missile carrier aircraft." When Ronald Reagan won the next election, they dropped the pretense, and the B-1 resumed as if Carter had never made the decision.
Finally, Gates won because he had Obama's support. When Gates submitted his budget to Congress, the president attached a message that he would -- not "might," but "would" -- veto the bill if it contained money for even one more F-22. It was the only veto threat in the president's first budget, and it worked.
By then, it was clear -- to the surprise of many -- that the two men had hit it off. Their biographies were very different, but their executive sensibilities were nearly identical: pragmatic, problem-solving, averse to ideological formula and cliché, inclined to give everyone involved a say and then make a crisp decision. Several officials said that Obama had asked Gates to stay on as defense secretary mainly to provide continuity in the management of the wars -- and cover for any resulting controversies, owing to his credibility with the Joint Chiefs and with both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. But it was soon evident that Gates had become, as one official put it, "a core player on the team." Obama meets with Gates once a week at the White House, something he does with only two other cabinet officers, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "There are a few cabinet secretaries who give advice outside their lane," a senior administration official said. "Gates is one of them."
Gates's most fateful influence may have come in the deliberations over the war in Afghanistan. Early in Obama's presidency, in hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates endorsed the commanders' request for 21,000 more troops to shore up security for the upcoming Afghan election but stressed that he'd be "deeply skeptical" of requests for more down the road. One of his most searing experiences was as the CIA's deputy director during the Reagan years, watching the Soviet empire collapse in the Afghan quagmire. If the Afghan people see the war as an American war, Gates told the senators, "we will go the way of other imperial occupiers."
Yet late in the summer of 2009, Gates changed his mind. He was reading a lot of articles on Afghanistan, and one had particular resonance: a piece by Frederick Kagan, a military analyst and vocal war supporter at the American Enterprise Institute, called "We're Not the Soviets in Afghanistan," published that August by the Weekly Standard. Gates said the article reminded him of some facts about the earlier war that he'd forgotten -- that the Soviets had killed 1 million Afghans, displaced 5 million more, and set out basically to destroy the country. "Clearly," Gates said in our interview, "none of that is what we were about in Afghanistan."
At the same time, the new Afghan war commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was briefing Gates on a new strategy, similar to Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy in post-2006 Iraq, that would focus on protecting the Afghan population and taking explicit steps to minimize civilian casualties. McChrystal, who was eventually fired this summer for making impolitic comments to a Rolling Stone reporter, had been on the job less than two months at that point. Gates had fired his predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, in May 2009 and strongly recommended McChrystal to replace him. McKiernan had asked for more troops but offered no new strategy, no coherent war plan at all; Gates, who had placed McKiernan on the job a year earlier, saw no point in adding more forces if all they'd do was keep grinding the wheels.