Take this vignette from 2010: That January, Mr. Gates called for a highly restricted meeting of [White House] principals to discuss the possibility of conflict with Iran with little or no advance notice. Mr. Gates describes the meeting in detail and then concludes with this nugget:
"I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting. To his very closest advisers, he said, 'For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decisions about Israel or Iran. Joe [Biden], you be my witness.' I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters." This is related without irony on page 393.
Gates was offended by the president's suspicion that Gates might do precisely what Gates later did. Wow. Even by Washington standards, this is amazing double-talk.
Of course Gates did not make policy regarding Israel or Iran. What about issues Gates personally controlled? This brings to mind the Pentagon's KC-X program.
Since 2002, the Air Force has been trying to build a new airborne tanker. Most Air Force tankers are derivatives of the obsolete 707 jetliner, which first flew in 1958 and which Western airlines retired a generation ago. The initial phase of the KC-X tanker project, occurring before Gates, involved a corruption scandal that sent a high Pentagon official, Darleen Druyun, to prison. In 2006, Gates become secretary of defense, tasked by President George W. Bush to clean up the KC-X mess, with wide authority regarding the project.
There were years of lobbying wars regarding whether Boeing or an Airbus-led venture would get the contract. The lobbying involved high-priced hired guns hurling campaign donations hither and yon to members of Congress who were more concerned with influence peddling than Air Force operational requirements; John McCain also got involved, and McCain gave George W. Bush the willies. To be secretary of defense while this was going on would not have been easy. But fixing the tanker mess was his job, and Gates failed, despite having five years in charge of the Defense Department.
In 2008, Gates called a new tanker the military's top acquisition priority, declaring production would be "expedited." Yet today, nothing is flying. Six years after Gates got on the case, Air Force fighters still are refueled by Eisenhower-era hardware.
The latest estimate is that the initial prototype of the new tanker, now dubbed KC-46, may take wing in 2015 -- seven years after Gates said the project was being expedited. First deployment is hoped for in 2017, a decade after the moment of "expedition," with construction of the new fleet not complete until 2028.