06/22/2011 10:08 am ET Updated Aug 22, 2011

Robert Gates: America's Best Defense Secretary?

What buzz was generated by last Sunday's edition of Fox News Sunday was provoked largely by Jon Stewart's angry, show-closing exchange with Chris Wallace. Yet it was another guest, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who merits greater consideration as he prepares to leave office as perhaps the most successful defense secretary in United States history.

If it applies, the distinction can admittedly be attributed mostly by default. The office has only existed since 1947 -- and its first inhabitant, James Forrestal, quickly came into conflict with both President Truman and the influential Washington journalists of the time over budget issues and the recognition of Israel. Forrestal's fondness for tragic allusion -- as Secretary of the Navy, Forrestal once slipped excerpts from Homer into a particularly dreary wartime memo -- culminated in his suicide only months after leaving the position. His body was discovered on May 22, 1949 outside a 16th-story kitchen window he presumably launched himself from; his implied parting note was a poem from Sophocles' Ajax.

Though George Marshall held the post in a cameo role during the Korean War, influential defense secretaries have been few and far between since the Truman era. Melvin Laird, the secretary from January 1969 through January 1973, was respected by the military hierarchy and members of Congress but never trusted by Richard Nixon and often kept out of the loop on sensitive matters, including initial bombings in Cambodia. His successor, James Schlesinger, clashed frequently with Nixon and Gerald Ford and was held at arm's length before his 1975 dismissal.

Of those who did matter, benign legacies are depressingly rare. Robert McNamara, a brilliant administrator held in high esteem by both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, is inexorably linked to body counts and protests. Caspar Weinberger, who held the office under Ronald Reagan, began the trend of skyrocketing defense budgets and retired amid questions of the Iran-Contra scandal.

And then there is Donald Rumsfeld, the youngest and the oldest man to serve as Pentagon chief. During the presidency of George W. Bush, Rumsfeld took part in the questionable public relations campaign to sell the Iraq war, presided over prisoner abuse scandals and faced unprecedented calls for his resignation from retired generals, who cited his sub-par stewardship of the nation's wars. Rumsfeld made few allies during his second go-around as secretary, coming across as unresponsive to troop concerns -- "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want" -- and hostile to should-be allies such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom Rumsfeld has relentlessly criticized since leaving office after the 2006 midterm elections.

In stark contrast to Rumsfeld, Gates's humility earned him early plaudits. So did the accountability and sense of fairness he restored to the office. Increased Pentagon cooperation with the State Department has manifested itself most recently regarding operations in Libya, while in 2007 Gates reacted forcefully to concerns regarding shameful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Whereas Rumsfeld presided over the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government while declaring that "we don't do nation-building," Gates's technique included heavy amounts of civilian contact. Probably not coincidentally, Iraq's baby-steps toward reclamation occurred during his tenure. A speech Gates delivered at the National Defense University in 2008, in which Gates implored the country to "be modest about what military force can accomplish and what technology can accomplish," amounted to an articulate and effective repudiation of the loud, inevitably awkward bombast of the president he then served.

In some respects, Gates has probably been more comfortably positioned in the administration of a president who once told the New York Times' David Brooks that he has "enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush." Under Obama, Gates maintained his collaborative approach, working closely with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Crucially, his continued tenure has provided a Democratic administration with the credibility needed to push funding away from obsolete programs and toward the creation of a 21st century military.

It is not a grand legacy Gates leaves, but a dignified one. In some respects, Gates's record is most analogous to McNamara successor Clark Clifford -- had Clifford, post-1968, also gone on to serve ably in the Nixon administration. (Instead, Clifford would eventually find himself on the 37th president's enemies list.) While the greatest initial challenge Gates faced was rebuilding the bridges Rumsfeld burned, the unanimously confirmed Leon Panetta has a far cleaner slate to work with. By providing a model for effective Pentagon administration, Gates has accomplished far more, under more challenging circumstances, than virtually all of his predecessors.

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