What Took Him So Long?

In the dying months of the Bush administration, a weary Robert Gates took to surreptitiously carrying around a clock. Given by a sympathetic friend, it displayed the days remaining until Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009, when he would be relieved of his duties as secretary of defense. Gates's family has been thought to eagerly await the day the veteran of six presidential administrations could finally step down. The secretary himself scoffed at speculation he might stay on.

We all know how that panned out. Still, with today's revelations in Foreign Policy magazine that Gates, 66, will retire sometime in 2011, the clock may soon be replaced by a well-earned gold watch.

In the story, Gates tells writer Fred Kaplan that if he stays until January 2011, he will be the nation's fifth-longest-serving Pentagon chief, behind only Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, Caspar Weinberger, and Charles E. Wilson, all of whom are reputed to have stayed past their prime. Gates also believes 2011 offers an ideal window between the end of the midterms and the start of the frenetic presidential election season. "I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," he says. "It might be hard to find a good person to take the job so late, with just one year to go in the president's current term ... This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."

The surprise, of course, is not that Gates is leaving, but that he stayed so long. With unfinished wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, he simply couldn't bring himself to turn down the request he always feared was coming from President Barack Obama. "In the middle of two wars, kids out there getting hurt and dying, there was no way that I was going to say, 'No.' "

Even then, he initially expected to stay only a year. But he has since become an indispensable member of the administration, pressing reforms to the Pentagon budget and implementing Obama's Afghanistan plan of trebling troop numbers to 100,000 with a view to commencing a drawdown next summer. Yesterday, General David Petraeus, commander of the joint U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan, stressed that stabilization would be gradual and refused to rule out requesting a delay in the withdrawal date.

As an expected reshuffle of administration personnel occurs after November's midterms, Gates may well find 2011 is the best time to depart. Yet as the servant of a president potentially forced to fine-tune his Afghanistan strategy, he may just as easily find himself facing fresh calls to stick around. Of course, this is a man who obviously has changed his retirement plans before.

What Took Him So Long? | U.S.