Every new year is supposed to be an occasion for new hope, but 2011 hasn't even begun and already there is cause for regret. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is planning to step down next year, and his departure will leave the capital even more short of the kind of people it needs: grownups.
That's one reason he is where he is. Incoming presidents normally replace all cabinet officers. But Barack Obama was smart enough to see there was no one better suited to the job. Over the objections of some liberals, he asked Gates to stay.
If you need a reminder of Gates' virtues, think back to the antics of his predecessor. Glib, cocksure and dismissive of criticism, Don Rumsfeld insisted on invading Iraq with a force too small to secure the country, shrugged off the resulting chaos ("freedom's untidy") and airily ordered brutal treatment of Guantanamo inmates. "I stand for 8-10 hours a day," he wrote. "Why is standing limited to four hours?"
Gates, by contrast, is a model of restraint -- careful, allergic to wisecracks and in full control of his ego. That does not make him mealy-mouthed or timid. In fact, he's unusually forthright and not averse to making controversial decisions.
But he bases them on a solid grasp of how the world works, not wishful thinking or half-baked ideological preconceptions. And he keeps his bearings when things don't go his way.
During his 2006 confirmation hearings, President George W. Bush's nominee refused to gloss over the failures of the Bush administration in Iraq. Asked if the U.S. was winning the war, Gates answered, "No, sir." Asked if the invasion was a good idea, he declined to endorse it.
Last week provided more examples of Gates' sober approach. After WikiLeaks released a trove of Pentagon documents last summer, he said the consequences "are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners." So when the group published 250,000 State Department documents, creating a political uproar, he could have hyped his fears. But he did the opposite.
"Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time," Gates said at a Pentagon briefing. "Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."
Gates has challenged what he calls the Pentagon's "culture of endless money." He killed the F-22 fighter, which the Air Force dearly wanted. He ordered the closure of the Joint Forces Command, prompting The New York Times to note, "Pentagon officials could not recall a time when a major command was shut down and vanished off the books."
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.