Over the past two years Gates has quietly won admiring assessments across the political spectrum in Washington for making unexpectedly very good progress in running the tactical war in Iraq. He has also tried to clean up or ameliorate several other disastrous messes he inherited from his controversial and widely criticized predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.
In Iraq, Gates lost no time in appointing U.S. four-star Gen. David Petraeus as the top commander, and Petraeus abandoned the Rumsfeld-era obsession with using U.S. air power to bomb widely, generating increasing support for the Islamist guerrillas in central Iraq. Instead, Petraeus, with Gates's full backing, applied classic counterinsurgency techniques.
The United States quite simply bought the support of tribal leaders in central Iraq, and the U.S. armed forces worked closely with them to create spreading islands, or "ink blots," of security. Support for al-Qaida and other extremist forces was not eliminated, but it withered on the vine.
Today, al-Qaida is still active and seeking to launch a new wave of car-bomb attacks and assassinations in Baghdad, but fatalities in the Iraqi capital and in Anwar and Diyala provinces are running at a fraction of the levels they were before Gates took office.
Gates has quietly worked with the heads of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency to continue to increase improvements in research and production and deployment of anti-ballistic missiles.
Gates also moved fast, immediately after he took office, to fire the secretary of the Army and to clean up the shameful conditions of badly wounded Iraq war veterans at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. He worked hard and energetically to improve the conditions of treatment and care for vets at hospitals across the United States.
There are many ironies to the Gates-Obama relationship. First, Obama won his party's nomination by knocking all things Bush, especially in relation to the Pentagon and the military. Yet now he is asking Bush's most powerful Cabinet member and the one responsible for waging the war in Iraq that Obama wants to end to stay in office.
Second, Gates, a former highly acclaimed director of central intelligence under President George Herbert Walker Bush, never even wanted to be secretary of defense even under current President George W. Bush.
When the current President Bush asked him to become secretary of defense in succession to Rumsfeld, Gates was said to accept only because he would have to serve for a short period of time. But he heeded the call of duty. Now, when Obama has made the same appeal to him, once again he is unlikely to say no.
In fact, Gates, who has proved to be a far more humane and people-friendly secretary of defense than his irritably arrogant and abrasive predecessor, sees eye-to-eye with Obama on the need to pull U.S. combat forces out of Iraq and concentrate instead on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
He also has made clear he agrees with Obama on wanting, if possible, to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program through negotiations rather than with pre-emptive U.S. airstrikes. And under Bush, Gates was noteworthy for crafting a political alliance with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Army leaders against Vice President Dick Cheney and armed forces hawks, especially in the U.S. Air Force, who preferred the pre-emptive strike solution.
The president-elect's desire to retain Gates may still infuriate those partisans who are already unhappy with the not-so-progressive bunch of nominees he has announced already.
But, just like the supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton who said they wouldn't support any Democrat for president other than Hillary, those people will come home to the Obama camp.
Obama, a passionate reader of U.S. political history like his hero President John F. Kennedy, also has followed the successful example of President Bill Clinton in appointing a Republican as his secretary of defense. In his second administration Clinton chose Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine. It is noteworthy too that in his third term of office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the greatest of all modern Democratic presidents, picked two Republicans, Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, to serve as his secretaries of war and navy with conspicuous success through World War II.
By retaining Gates, Obama, as in his choices of Timothy Geithner for treasury secretary and Bill Richardson as commerce secretary, is taking another major step to build an exceptionally strong Cabinet -- something else in which he is following FDR's example -- and also Abraham Lincoln's.