What Is Robert Gates Really Fighting For?

A trusted aide to six Presidents, Robert Gates is the most powerful Defense Secretary in a generation. But what is the Republican at the head of Obama's war room fighting for?

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Lynsey Addario for TIME

Gates being briefed at Camp Eggers in Kabul during a tour of Afghanistan last December.

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Gates considered that and said there was a lot of consistency in his strong support for surges both in Iraq and Afghanistan. His aide interrupted to clarify. "This goes back to the Cold War, sir." Gates thought for a moment. Even his chief of staff, Robert Rangel, the most influential unknown man in Washington, seemed curious to see what the boss would say. "If there's a consistency, it is my belief that the country is--I am very much an American exceptionalist"--he paused--"and I believe that we are, as a country, the greatest force for good in the history of the world."

Those who know Gates consider him a realist in the mold of his mentor Brent Scowcroft, which is why it was surprising to hear such an idealistic answer. But American exceptionalism can signify many things. Its assertion of America's historical uniqueness can suggest that the U.S. has special global obligations and privileges. Exceptionalism can be a dangerous faith because of how much it can extenuate and excuse. Gates is not a philosopher, and it is hard to know what he means by his profession of the exceptionalist faith. It may be just a fancy way of expressing the more prosaic pursuit of a great power's long-term strategic goals: the Cold War, the long war on terrorism, the escalation in Afghanistan.

It's understandable why the realist might steer away from the label of realism, particularly in time of terrorism and war. Realism is a fuzzy thing; it can accommodate both darkness and light. On the dark side, it denotes cynicism, indifference to higher principles, opportunism. On the positive side, though, it implies a lack of dogmatism or ideological blinders, an ability to respond to the world as it actually is.

It's the latter quality that has made Gates so valuable. He is a problem solver, a fixer and a loyal soldier. In Washington those qualities go a long way. For a long time now, the wise men in Washington have been the problem solvers, and the fixers have been regarded as sages. But the fixer is not the moral leader, the one who provides American policy with its purposes. It's worth remembering that what finally matters are the values and the principles he is fixing for.

Robert Gates in Afghanistan

To see more photos of the Defense Secretary at work, go to time.com/robertgates

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