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Afghanistan war decision: how Robert Gates thinks

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"Who he is, his track record, his style, his intelligence, his bipartisanship, his experience and his proven low-key leadership style all would argue that he would be a much more credible broker than just about anyone," McKee wrote in an e-mail. "I bet he's doing his best to help come up with as right an answer as is possible."

And when he shares that conclusion with the president, he'll have great sway, says Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an admirer of Gates: "[He] is going to have a major say in this because ... he has the confidence of the president, he has the confidence of Congress, and he has an extraordinarily important position in this decision."

LITTLE ABOUT GATES ON THE OUTSIDE betrays the astute student and dealmaker on the inside. By all appearances, he's as vanilla as they come: Stout and round-faced with precision-parted hair and a preference for white shirts, he has a nasal twang from his native Kansas. He goes in for jigsaw puzzles over sports, and has a strong taste for meat and potatoes sometimes even in the most exotic locales.

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