Professor’s Prologue by Dr. Mary D. Coleman, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Political Science and Global Studies
Wednesday, November 06, 2013
“Values such as civility, mutual respect, putting country before self, and country before party are now seen to be increasingly quaint, historic relics to be put on display at the Smithsonian, perhaps next to Mr. Rogers’ sweater or Julia Child’s kitchen.”
Throughout his storied career Robert Gates has served in cabinet positions for U.S. presidents of both parties. He has received numerous honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2011 during Gates’s retirement ceremony. He served the nation during the last years of the Cold War, the so-called Velvet Revolution, and during several moments of cooperation and conflict between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the KGB. He directed both the Iraq troop surge and the withdrawal of troops. Each of these journeys is fascinating, and Gates’s memoir, “From the Shadows,” is an absorbing read that pulls the covers back on what is meant by intelligence, on the moments of tension and cooperation between our nation and transnational foes and allies, and on the blurring of lines that occurs as challenges in nations and across nations erupt. How might one unpack Gates’s life and his journey from Eagle Scout to Defense Secretary and our nation’s journey from fighting Communism and the Sandinistas to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Gates was recruited to join the CIA while still a graduate student at Indiana University. He served for 26 years in the CIA and the National Security Council, later serving as director of Central Intelligence in 1991 under George H. W Bush. He was the 22nd United States Secretary of Defense and he functioned in this capacity for both a democratic and a republican president. Gates grew up in Wichita, Kansas and graduated from the public high school there. What shaped his early life and his capacity to serve—to give to the nation time and again? I know our students will care deeply about his service and active citizenship, and the Boston Speakers Series’ ticket-holders will ask why he chose to serve in both the Bush and Obama administrations and what lessons he has learned about leadership and decision making and about the necessity of covert and overt wars.
A graduate of Indiana University (Master’s degree in history) and Georgetown University (Doctorate in Russian Studies), Gates has always had a firm grip on realpolitik. “From the start,” he has said, “American politics was a contact sport---a dirty one at that.” Um! Still, on balance, he believes that “we are now in uncharted territory when it comes to the dysfunction in our political system. It appears that as a result of several polarizing trends in American politics and culture, we have lost the ability to execute even the basic functions of government, much less solve the most difficult and divisive problems facing this country.” I expect that he’ll engage the audience in a cogent conversation about our nation’s foreign policy and our role as leader in transnational politics. He will also explain how we might begin to repair our politics. We’ll want to understand how he kept such balance amid all the noise of Washington. Did he ever grow weary of political warfare (nomination wars, forced resignations, and near-misses of various kinds), not to mention all the battles he led with “boots on the ground” and drones from the air?
Gates has been at the center of many controversial decisions. It is the Iran Contra Affair that we most recall when we consider Gates’s life and legacy. Gates also attracted attention when, during the Obama administration, he decided to remove a wartime commander, General David McKiernan, from command in Afghanistan. By contrast, Gates’s decision to lift the ban on women serving on submarines was met with little fanfare. And despite the fact that his efforts to prepare the way for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” were highly heralded, he referred to the repeal as a matter of both “common sense and common decency.”
This 1965 William and Mary alumnus and present William and Mary Chancellor received the Sydney Sullivan Award as the graduate who “has made the greatest contribution to his fellow man.” What will he say about the career and contributions? How many secrets, if any, might he tell now that his five decades of service in Washington can come out from the shadows? What does he make of Edward Snowden and the National Security Administration? We look forward to hearing his insights on these and other issues.
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