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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"Whatever Gates chooses to take a position on, Gates is the single most influential guy," says Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and a skeptic of the Administration's strategy in Afghanistan. Gelb points out that in early December, days after President Obama's West Point speech announcing his decision to send 30,000 additional troops (on top of the 32,000 deployed in 2009) to the war zone and then begin bringing them home in July 2011, Gates went on the Sunday talk shows to say the withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground. "The President didn't challenge him," Gelb says. "That tells you most of what you need to know about Gates' role and power in the Administration."

It also tells you how the White House, if it finds itself in a national-security bind, will wield Gates to fend off Republican attack dogs. When FBI agents arrested the alleged Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, they questioned him for just 50 minutes before reading him his Miranda rights. Ever since, Republicans have assailed the White House: Why was he permitted access to lawyers before a more complete interrogation could take place? Why is he being tried in a civilian court instead of a military one? Somehow the story got around that Gates had approved both decisions. When I asked Gates about it, he was cautious, saying the conclusion about what to do with the alleged bomber had already been made by the time he said he had no problem with it. Abdulmutallab has since begun cooperating with investigators. As for where he should be tried, Gates said, "I defer to the judgment of the Attorney General."

When Gates, who took over the Pentagon from Donald Rumsfeld in 2006, accepted Obama's request to stay on and work for the new Administration, many people assumed he wouldn't last long--and that even if he stayed, his clout would shrink in a White House suddenly populated by left-leaning staffers suspicious of anyone associated with George W. Bush foreign policy. And yet Gates has achieved "two victories in one year," in the words of an in-house fan. In December he won passage of a watershed Pentagon budget that shifted spending from theoretical, conventional wars to the unconventional ones the military is actually fighting now. He also helped Obama execute a surge in Afghanistan, a plan Obama had campaigned on in 2008 but which has since become known as the "Gates option." "Sixty-two thousand forces committed in one year of a liberal Democratic President's first term? That's pretty remarkable," says a senior Defense official.

Gates has always had a keen sense about who is the boss, "how they work, what their needs are and how to successfully contribute to their offices," says an aide. It's what allows him to adapt his positions to changing times. Under Bush he justified the missile-defense program; under Obama he took charge of canceling it. Similarly, while he's never been a champion of repealing the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, he has agreed to carry out the President's order to do just that.

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