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Gates Ends US Defense Secretary Tour

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates walks with a group of service members at Forward Operating Base Waltman, Sunday, June 5, 2011, in Kandahar, Afghanistan
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates walks with a group of service members at Forward Operating Base Waltman, Sunday, June 5, 2011, in Kandahar, Afghanistan

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Robert Gates will step down as U.S. Secretary of Defense on Thursday, after more than four years of service in the post under two presidents of different political parties.  He has overseen U.S. military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and he leaves at a time when the U.S. military is facing a growing range of challenges.

A man above politics

Robert Gates was sworn into office in late-2006, during the administration of President George W. Bush at a crucial time during the war in Iraq.

His ability to stay in his post as long as he has is a tribute, some say, to his ability to put politics aside.

This is what former President Bush had to say about Gates after choosing him to take over for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

"He's [Gates] a man of integrity, candor and sound judgment.  He knows that the challenge of protecting our country is larger than any political party,” said Bush.

James Carafano, a national security analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, says Gates has been successful because he does what his boss wants him to do.

"People often marvel at how could this person work for President Bush and President Obama, who have completely different leadership styles," he said.  "There is actually a lot of continuity in their foreign policies, but certainly the rhetoric of their foreign policies is completely different.  And yet, this same person serves them both very well."

Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns

When Gates became defense secretary, there were huge questions about the future of the war in Iraq.  He oversaw a troop surge there that analysts say helped turn the campaign around as well as a subsequent withdrawal, as security responsibility shifted to Iraqi authorities.

In Afghanistan, he has overseen a similar process which is moving into its drawdown phase.  Analysts note that although the future of both engagements is uncertain, Gates has made the safety, security and welfare of U.S. troops a top priority.

And his approach appears to resonate with the troops.

Gates spoke with the troops during his last visit to Afghanistan in early June.

"More than anybody except the president, I am responsible for you being here.  I am the person that signed the deployment papers that got you here and that weighs on me every day," he said.

As secretary of defense, Gates has made 12 trips to Afghanistan and more than a dozen to Iraq, always making a point to meet with those who put their lives on the line.

During a speech to the Marine Corps Association, Gates became visibly emotional as he spoke of Marine Corps Major Doug Zembiec, who was killed in May 2007 during his fourth tour in Iraq.

"Every evening, I write notes to the families of young Americans like Doug Zembiec," said Gates. "For you and for me, they are not names on a press release or numbers updated on a website.  They are our country's sons and daughters."

A straight-talker

Gates is known for being a straight-talker and has not walked quietly into the sunset during his last few months in office.  At a hearing on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski called Gates' remarks in recent farewell speeches "eyebrow-raising" and "jaw-dropping."

“You’ve dropped more bombs on some of these [speeches] than the Air Force,” said Mikulski.

Speaking at the United States Military Academy in February, Gates spoke of the changing nature of America's military and warned against large-scale wars similar to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“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,” he said.

NATO allies

In a speech to members of NATO, he warned that a lack of funds from European members and frontline support were weakening the alliance.

But The Heritage Foundation's James Carafano says Gates' sharp remarks were too little, too late.

"Everything that Secretary Gates said going out the door is absolutely true.  NATO is not paying enough; we can't afford to take missions off the table; we have to buy new equipment.  He did nothing in his four years to prepare for that," he said.

Challenges ahead

As Gates leaves office, the Obama administration is grappling with an American public that has grown weary of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pressure is building to cut defense spending.  Gates cautioned that it was crucial to consider what kind of a role the United States will play in the world.

“Are we basically sending a message to the rest of the world and I would say to China, to Iran, to North Korea, to a variety of other places, the U.S. is closing up shop and going home, and we’re headed toward fortress America again?” asked Gates

Gates says that is a huge question that administration officials, lawmakers and the American people will need to grapple with after he is gone.   

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