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Gates, pragmatist who oversaw two US wars, retires

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates salutes at Arlington National Cemetery after attending the burial service for U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Nicholas S. O'Brien June 28, 2011 in Arlington, Virginia. AFP

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who oversaw attempts to salvage troubled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, retires Thursday after a stint that won him praise across the political spectrum.

The 67-year-old Washington insider rose through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War to become the spy agency’s director before returning to government to take over as defense chief at a fraught moment in the Iraq conflict.

Gates began his four-and-a-half-year Pentagon stint by helping to manage the troop surge credited with defusing spiraling violence in Iraq, a result he says is his most important accomplishment.

“I think, had we left here (Iraq) with our tail between our legs and with chaos, it would have been very bad for our army and for our military,” the understated Kansan, known for plain speaking and pragmatism, told CBS news.

Former president George W. Bush named Gates in 2006 to the Pentagon job to succeed the combative Donald Rumsfeld, who had become a lightning rod for criticism over the controversial Iraq war and the handling of detainees.

In the aftermath of the turbulent Rumsfeld era, Gates eased tensions and repaired relations with the military brass, Congress and allies abroad.

But after more than four years as what he called “secretary of war,” the weight of the job began to show. His voice would often crack with emotion when he spoke to young soldiers in the field.

When President Barack Obama called on Gates to stay on as Pentagon chief in 2009, he became the first defense secretary to be asked to remain in office by a newly elected president, a testament in part to his vaunted reputation in Congress -- where lawmakers from both parties rarely criticized him.

As a Republican who had been known as a hawk during the Cold War, Gates lent heft to Obama’s national security team and to some extent shielded the younger, inexperienced president from criticism on the right.

But the bipartisan confidence Gates inspires today is a far cry from his searing experience in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he faced a legal probe and hostile senate hearings over his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Upon taking the helm of the Pentagon in 2006, Gates inherited an unpopular war in Iraq that seemed on the verge of catastrophe.

He backed the last-ditch surge of US forces masterminded by General David Petraeus, helping to halt a slide towards all-out sectarian war.

While other factors contributed to the improvement in security, including the decision of Sunni tribal leaders to turn on Al-Qaeda, Gates has touted Iraq as a qualified success.

But the outcome in Afghanistan remains an open question.

Gates, who at the CIA had once funnelled arms to mujahideen forces fighting the Russians in the 1980s, found himself in charge of American troops deployed in a war that has surpassed the length of the Soviet occupation.

He was influential in Obama’s decision to send an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, as well as the timeline announced last week for a gradual withdrawal of the reinforcements next year.

Skeptical of the ideological use of military action, Gates often expressed caution about resorting to force when vital interests are not clearly at stake.

He warned of the risks of intervention in Iran and argued -- unsuccessfully -- against the air war in Libya.

He often said his highest priority was providing for troops, and he pushed the Pentagon bureaucracy to build heavily-armored vehicles to better protect soldiers and to reduce the time for medical evacuations in Afghanistan.

Despite his soft-spoken manner, Gates held military leaders accountable and did not hesitate to fire them if he believed they had failed.

He once sacked the air force secretary and chief of staff on the same day -- a firing without precedent -- after a series of nuclear blunders.

After a career in government that has spanned eight presidents, Gates hands over the reins to Leon Panetta, the outgoing CIA director.

Gates has joked that this is his second attempt at retirement. After stepping down as CIA chief in 1993, he worked on corporate boards before becoming president of Texas A&M University in 2002.

As defense secretary, he compared his work to when he was a university president, saying in both cases he had responsibility for young people under the age of 24.

“But instead of wearing J-Crew they wear body armor. Instead of carrying book bags they are carrying assault rifles.

“And a number of them -- far too many -- will not come home to their parents.”

 

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