Steve Chapman

When it came to "don't ask, don't tell," Gates acted with both deliberation and resolve. He insisted that the issue be handled without haste and with due respect for the unique culture of the military. He commissioned a survey of attitudes in the ranks -- which found that most service members expect repeal would not have a harmful effect.

When a few senators urged deference to the negative attitudes of some personnel, Gates replied, "I can't think of a single precedent in American history of doing a referendum of the American armed forces on a policy issue. Are you going to ask them if they want 15-month tours? Are you going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq?" He has great respect for men and women in uniform, but he understands that in our system, the ultimate authority lies with civilians.

Unlike some, he sees war as a last resort, if that. When the possibility of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities was raised in 2008, he said, "Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need."

Even when Gates may be wrong on policy, such as his support last year for a troop surge in Afghanistan, there is no reason to doubt his good faith. He obviously makes such decisions with a full appreciation of the costs, the benefits and the best arguments on either side -- as you might expect of someone who, while working for the Central Intelligence Agency, marched against the Vietnam War.

Gates' most important qualities -- patience, persistence, deep knowledge and humility -- make him easy to overlook among the zealots and camera hogs in Washington. Those attributes become conspicuous only when they are gone.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate