I think Robert Gates is probably the best Secretary of Defense (or Secretary of War) since Henry L. Stimson and probably in the Top 5 in all of American history (a lot of Americans would probably be surprised to realize that many historians, including myself consider Jefferson Davis to be #1). Gates was loyal, dependable, incredibly smart, eminently qualified, and had the respect and confidence of not only the military, but two Presidents from different parties who had almost nothing in common other than Robert Gates as their Secretary of Defense. For President Bush and President Obama, Secretary Gates was the ideal Cabinet member — supportive, yet unafraid to voice objections or an opposing viewpoint, and completely capable of managing his department and getting the most out of his people. I have nothing but respect for Robert Gates.
General Petraeus would be a hell of a Presidential candidate. We don’t know for sure which party the General belongs to, but I think most people believe that he is a Republican. If General Petraeus was the Republican Presidential nominee in 2012 instead of Mitt Romney, I think President Obama would probably go ahead and start getting some packing done for his move back to Chicago. I think Petraeus would have beaten Obama pretty handily. The fact that the President put the General in charge of the CIA may not have been politically motivated, but it was undoubtedly politically beneficial to get Petraeus out of the immediate public eye and set up at Langley.
As for Colin Powell, I was disappointed in him long before his resignation as Secretary of State. General Powell was one of the most respected Americans alive when he joined President George W. Bush’s Cabinet in 2001 and, from the outset, it appeared that Powell would be the voice of reason in the Bush Administration following 9/11 as the neo-conservatives were clamoring for war in Iraq. I lost so much respect for General Powell because he knew war with Iraq was wrong, he clearly didn’t believe war in Iraq was necessary, and yet he still went to the United Nations and did the Bush Administration’s bidding in an attempt to build a coalition. In Powell’s mind, I believe he felt he was being a good, loyal soldier in the service of his President, but serving his President conflicted with how best to serve his country. It was sad to see Powell in that role (not Secretary of State, but the role he played in the lead-up to the Iraq War). That’s when I was disappointed in General Powell, and it’s a shame because of Powell’s stature. Many younger Americans don’t realize that, 12 years before Barack Obama was elected President, Colin Powell seriously weighed taking on Bill Clinton in Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign. Had General Powell run in ‘96, he definitely would have been the GOP nominee and probably would have been elected the first black President. In his excellent book about the 1996 campaign, The Choice (BOOK•KINDLE), Bob Woodward notes that Powell’s decision not to run led to genuine relief for President Clinton and Clinton’s political aides.