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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In late 2008, with the Iraq war and the Bush presidency winding down, Gates made plans to return to Texas. Just before the presidential election, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed contacted Gates. Would he be interested in staying on? Would he meet with Obama about it? Gates prepared some questions. He wanted Obama to know where he was coming from. Obama read them over and told Reed, "They're right on target. I'm impressed, and it'd be useful to have a conversation with him."

What did Gates ask the President-elect? "I asked him if he could trust me."

Gates made himself easy to trust. By nature he's not a guy who seeks the limelight, and Obama has no patience for media hounds. Staffers say it turns out Gates has got more in common with Obama than he did with Bush. They're both cerebral, analytical and reflective. "Seeing terrorism as a long-term challenge--I think that's kind of fundamental," Gates told me. "And President Obama has pursued that with every bit as much vigor as President Bush."

Like Obama, Gates can consume reams of information. His photographic memory is legendary. He is a voracious reader of history, spy novels and pulp fiction. He's subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club for 50 years. And he is careful, meticulously so. One decades-long colleague told me Gates will cancel a briefing if he hasn't done his homework. "Preparation for him is a cathartic experience," says his spokesman Morrell. He vents brutal answers to imaginary questions so he can be more diplomatic on the Hill. He's vigilant about the stagecraft of statecraft, even taking his own messy handwritten notes to meetings so his preparation can be seen.

In his office overlooking the Washington Monument, Gates has hung portraits of the leaders who most inspire him, Eisenhower and Marshall. Since 2007, when Gates re-emerged on the government speaking circuit, he has had one consistent obsession--the relationship between State and Defense. Like a nervous tic, he never misses the chance to tell an audience how, for most of his career, the secretaries of State and Defense have barely been on speaking terms.

Gates has gone out of his way to woo Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, so much so that they've come to seem inseparable. "Gates needs her," says Bruce Riedel, who led Obama's strategic review of Afghanistan early last year. "No one would take Gates' view on what the Democratic Party would support in Afghanistan seriously. He's not a Democrat."

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