Correction Appended: Feb. 5, 2010
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates flies around the world to war zones and allies, to China and Russia and Suriname, on a Cold War relic called the Doomsday Plane. Forged in the 1970s by Boeing, it was designed to stay aloft even in the midst of nuclear war. It's an airborne Pentagon. The plane is so heavy that it needs refueling in midair on long flights. The Air Force crew aboard told me that on occasion, the fuel nozzle from the floating tankers has smashed through the pilots' windshield like an angry space creature. It's one of a handful of planes coated with nuclear-attack shielding and capable of emitting launch codes to all U.S. missile silos.
Just past the flight deck is a conference room outfitted with plugs and portals and a lacquered table at which the relaxed Secretary sat in jeans, loafers and a pressed button-down, on the way back home from Afghanistan and Iraq. We'd been talking about the stress of congressional hearings, the burden of sending young men and women to war, and just as our conversation was drawing to a close, he said, "I always used to tell people that Texas A&M football caused me more stress than any job I've ever had. And they always thought I was exaggerating." I expressed disbelief, but he stood by the statement.
"I asked my wife one time, Why is that? And she said, 'Because you have no control.' " He paused. "Here, I have a little control," he said, tapping the plane's conference table.
It was classic Gates: droll, attentive to timing, a little self-deprecating, acutely self-aware. It was also revealing. Gates is a careful, restrained player who wields his power with quiet but ruthless efficiency as he did on Feb. 1, when he fired the military officer overseeing the Pentagon's new F-35 stealth-fighter-jet program for cost overruns and technical failures and punished Lockheed Martin by withholding $615 million in fees. Lots of defense contractors and program managers underachieve, yet they almost always get away with it. Not under Gates.
Like his fellow Cold War survivor the Doomsday Plane, Gates has come to embody power, control and an astonishing longevity. Just 5 ft. 8 in., with small hands and feet, the demure 66-year-old Kansan has outlasted seven Presidents as well as most of his fellow bureaucrats and policymakers. He's the only entry-level CIA analyst to rise to the top job, director of central intelligence. And he's the only Secretary of Defense ever to be asked to stay on in a rival party's Administration. He has thrived through a combination of endurance, pragmatism and bureaucratic savvy. And during the past year, on issue after issue Pentagon reform, missile defense, Afghanistan and now the Pentagon's move to repeal the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military Gates has become the most important player in the Obama war Cabinet. It's a remarkable feat, considering that he's the only Republican on the Democratic national-security team.
"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."