‘Duty’ | Inquirer Opinion


/ 08:25 PM February 16, 2014

Duty refers to a personal sense of what one should do particularly when faced by a difficult situation. It is also the title of a book by former US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who holds the distinction of being the only secretary of defense in US history to serve two presidents, one a Republican, the other a Democrat. In his own words, he says, “I became the only secretary of defense in history to be asked to remain in the position by a newly-elected President, let alone one of a different party.” Gates served in the position from December 2006 under George W. Bush, and stayed on with President Barack Obama until July 2011.

“Duty” is a deeply personal story that contains many lessons for our politicians who aspire to lead the nation in the years ahead.

First, a few notes on the man.

Robert Gates comes from middle-class roots. His father was an automobile salesman, a Republican who idolized c, and thought of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a dictator. His mother’s side was mostly Democrats and so at an early age, he was exposed to bipartisanship and the importance of getting along with people of different attitudes and inclinations. He has often been cited as “America’s last bipartisan figure.” He is the only career officer in Central Intelligence Agency history to rise from entry-level employee to director. He served in the agency for 26 years.


* * *

In 2006, Iraq was a mess and there was need for a new strategy and a new defense chief to replace Donald Rumsfeld. At that time, Gates was serving as president of Texas A&M University, and enjoying retirement from government service.

When asked if he would accept an appointment as defense secretary, he replied, “We have kids dying in two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. If I can help, I have no choice but to say yes. It is my duty.”

In November 2006, President Bush announced his intention to appoint Gates as secretary of defense. He was confirmed by the Senate in December. During the hearings, when asked if the United States was winning in Iraq, his simple reply was, “No, sir.” Gates says that if one answer clinched his confirmation, that was it. He was sworn into


office a few days later.

Apparently in the US system, Cabinet members must first be confirmed before they can assume position. In our country, we also have a political system of Cabinet members being subject to confirmation by a Commission on Appointments. But very often, after being bypassed several times, some continue to serve by virtue of new appointments being extended and can stay on year after year. A number of Aquino Cabinet members are in this situation. This was also true during the Arroyo administration. What is the point of requiring confirmation by a Commission on Appointments if in the end, this requirement can easily be overcome?


* * *

After Barack Obama’s election in 2008, feelers were made for Gates to stay on as defense secretary. He sent back word that he was willing to talk to Obama about the matter but wanted to submit some questions to the president-elect prior to their meeting. These questions would be the basis of their conversation. By the way, when the feelers were made, Gates sent word to President Bush about the possibility of his staying on. Bush replied that he “was very pleased and hoped that if asked, I would stay because it would greatly benefit the country.”

Gates submitted nine questions in writing to Obama. There is not enough space for all but these are some of the more interesting questions:

• The first question was: “Why do you want me to stay?” Obama said, “First, because of the excellence of my performance as secretary, and second, because he needed to focus over the next six months or so on the economy and needed continuity and stability in defense matters.”

•  The second question was: “How long do you want me to stay?” Obama’s reply, “Let’s leave it completely open publicly, with the private understanding of about a year.” (Gates stayed on for two-and-a-half years.)

• The third question was: “We do not know each other. Are you prepared to trust me from Day One, and include me in your innermost councils on national security matters?” Obama’s reply: “I would not ask you to stay if I didn’t trust you. You will be in on all major issues and decisions—and the minor ones, too, if you want.”

• The fourth question was: “Who would form the rest of the national security team?” Obama mentioned the names of a number of individuals for key positions.

• Another question: “Could I keep two or three current appointees, at least for the duration of my tenure?” Obama’s reply: He would consider it.

Gates writes about the meeting, saying “Perhaps, the most unusual aspect was a prospective appointee sending the president-elect a list of questions to answer. Potential cabinet members and other possible appointees were always the ones who had to answer the president-elect’s questions.”

Can we imagine a Philippine president-elect submitting himself to questions from a prospective appointee in his administration?

At the end of the conversation, Gates told Obama, “I want you to know that should I stay, you would never need worry about my working a separate or different agenda. As I have with other presidents, I would give you my best and most candid advice. Should you decide on a different path,  I would either support you, or leave. I would not be disloyal.”

* * *

The day Robert Gates stepped down as secretary of defense in July 2011, he sent a message to all the men and women in uniform in the US armed forces: “You are the best America has to offer. . . . I will think about you and your families and pray for you every day for the rest of my life. God bless you.”

He concludes his memoirs saying, “I am eligible to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. I have asked to be buried in Section 60, where so many of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid to rest. The greatest honor possible would be to rest among my heroes for all eternity.”

* * *

Another kind of duty.

It is my duty to announce that on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, alumnae of St. Theresa’s College Manila will gather at the Harbor Garden tent of the Sofitel Philippine Plaza for their annual homecoming. The events start with a Mass at 4 p.m., followed by dinner, and a much-anticipated show by this year’s Jubilarian classes. This year’s theme is “A Theresian World”—A Tribute to the Global Theresian whose light shines no matter where in the world their lives and travels have led them.

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All Theresians are invited. Dinner tickets are available. For more information, please contact STAA secretary Essle Lopez at Tel. No. 740-1810 or e-mail [email protected]. (My commander in chief belongs to STC high school class 1954.—RJF)

TAGS: Military, news

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