WASHINGTON -- A rush of recent events has confirmed long-standing conservative suspicions about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- causing grumbling, and a call from William Kristol for his hastened retirement.
In a speech last month at West Point, Gates argued that anyone recommending large American interventions in Asia should, quoting Gen. Douglas MacArthur, "have his head examined" -- a strangely timed assertion with almost 100,000 Americans currently intervening in Afghanistan at Gates' recommendation. Later clarifications amounted to a retreat.
Gates' unconcealed skepticism about a Libyan no-fly zone has encouraged Obama administration paralysis -- a loss of both movement and humanitarian sensation.
And Gates' recent trip to Bahrain -- urging a process of political consultation the day before Saudi Arabian troops began arriving to prop up Bahrain's royal family -- seemed disconnected from the pace of change in the region.
Gates' skepticism about the practical applicability of foreign policy ideals is a throwback to the days of President George H.W. Bush. "We have to be very realistic," Gates told me last week on his plane between stops in Afghanistan, Europe and Bahrain, "about our capacity to shape the world and to shape other countries that have their own history and their own culture and their own traditions -- and particularly, to shape them in our image."
But accepting this self-description -- cautious, skeptical of idealism and intervention -- misses the paradox of Bob Gates.
It was Gates who helped salvage the Iraq surge in Congress when key Republicans began to waiver and Democratic leaders pressed for a specific withdrawal date. It was Gates who has provided top cover for Gen. David Petraeus in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It was Gates who convinced President Obama, against the anti-war instincts of the White House staff and Democratic base, to support a serious escalation of the Afghan War. And it is Gates who has skillfully shifted attention away from Obama's July deadline for the start of American withdrawal from Afghanistan toward the more realistic target of 2014, when Afghans are scheduled to assume the security lead in their country.
Perhaps only a foreign policy realist, with a reassuring public manner, could have rescued one unpopular war from defeat, made the transition to an anti-war administration, and put another war on a better path.