Alex Massie

The Most Important Man in Washington?

Text settings

Apart from Barack Obama, that is. One way of measuring influence, in Washington, Whitehall or elsewhere, is to ask: how much damage would this person's resignation do? By that standard, there are only two really, truly important people in the Obama administration: Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates. And only one of them has the power to walk away from their job. Clinton is trapped since, barring some total fiasco she cannot resign without damaging her own prospects and reputation.

The Defense Secretary is a different matter. Gates's reputation in Washington is now such that he's the indispensable man. Just as Colin Powell was the only man whose resignation could, perhaps, have stalled the push for the Iraq War, so Gates is the man who could, were he so minded, cripple the Obama administration's national security policy.

So I recommend Mike Crowley's New Republic excellent piece on Gates's transformation from (mildly) disgraced Cold War Warrior to Wise Man commanding near-universal respect. As the administration moves towards announcing the dispatch of at least 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, it seems likely that Gates's views have trumped those of Vice-President Joe Biden. As Crowley writes:

While the admiration between Gates and the Obama White House may be mutual, it may not be unconditional. Gates has so far won lavish praise for his management of the Pentagon. “Based on where we are today, I’d say he’s the best defense secretary I’ve seen in a long time,” says Andrew Krepinevich, a military analyst who serves on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board. But the easy part is probably behind him. The past several months have demonstrated that Obama may be wary of a major long-term U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. Gates, by contrast, seems convinced that Taliban gains would be a strategic disaster. And other important policy differences lie on the horizon. Gates’s service to Obama has made him one of Washington’s most revered figures and completed a years-long rehabilitation of his once-controversial public image. The question now is how long it can last.


Political considerations have their limits for Gates. He did, after all, support the Iraq surge at a time when it was immensely unpopular among Americans. The same appears to go for Afghanistan. “In any war that has lasted any time at all, those wars have never been particularly popular,” Gates says. “Even toward the end of World War II, by 1944, people were beginning to be war-weary and wondering why it was taking so long. A president basically has to decide what’s in the best interest of the country and then lead public opinion.” Both the Obama and Bush administrations, he said, have not done a good enough job of explaining to the American people why the United States is fighting in Afghanistan.

Quietly, then, Bob Gates has deftly put himself in the position once held by his old boss and confidant Brent Scowcroft: “I once told Scowcroft that he and I were alike in at least one respect--our egos were no smaller than those who had highly visible positions; we just satisfied ours in a different way, through the private exercise of influence.”

The administration's Afghanistan review has been a long, even protracted, process. But it looks as though, perhaps unsurprisingly, Gates has prevailed. Powell was an Indispensable Man who proved powerless; Gates is better at playing the Washington game and knows how to leverage his Indispensability to proper effect. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleInternationalafghanistan