In Our View: Gates to the NW

After a sterling career in national security, defense secretary retires at the end of June

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Americans know a lot about Defense Secretary Robert Gates, most significantly that he has served admirably under two polar-opposite presidents and that he is retiring at the end of this week, to be replaced by CIA Director Leon Panetta. It’s also well-known that Gates served as president of Texas A&M University and earlier as CIA director under President George H.W. Bush.

But what many people might not know is that Gates has strong ties to Washington state. According to The Seattle Times, Gates and his wife, Rebecca, and their two children moved in 1994 to a lakefront home on Big Lake near Mount Vernon in Skagit County. Son Bradley graduated from Washington State University in Pullman. The Times reported in 2006: “While living in Skagit County, Gates made several donations to the local Big Lake Elementary School. His gifts — which he later acknowledged — were made anonymously, until he stepped forward in 2001 to offer $20,000 in matching donations … to build a new playground.” And according to a recent editorial in The Herald of Everett, Gates will retire to that lakefront home.

To our state, Gates brings a legacy as one of America’s most even-tempered, rational and powerful national-security experts in the past several decades. He has consistently operated beyond the political constraints that bind less-resolute public servants inside the Beltway. You think you’ve experienced tough managerial changes at your job? It’s doubtful many workers have labored under leaders as radically different as President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

It might not have been easy for Gates to leave a comfortable presidency at Texas A&M and answer the younger Bush’s call to serve as defense secretary. And it might not have been easy for the low-keyed, studious Gates to work in the shadow of what The Herald called “the arrogant, bombastic tenure of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.”

But Robert Gates is not a man of mights or maybes. We learned that this year when he told Army cadets at West Point: “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

We were reminded recently that Gates is not a man of mights or maybes when he spoke at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He said that if NATO doesn’t pick up the pace on meeting its obligations, there will be “the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance.”

To be sure, Gates is retiring with no abundance of admiration for NATO, as he boldly described NATO’s air operations in Libya: “We have the spectacle of an air operations center (in Italy), designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day, struggling to launch about 150. Furthermore, the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country, yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.”

Obviously, Gates is tired of his United States’ playing the role of global police chief: “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

With Gates demonstrating such clear common sense, we wish he were continuing as defense secretary. But we’re glad to have him joining us here in the Pacific Northwest.