By Phil Stewart, Missy Ryan and David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Robert Gates, in his final interview as defense secretary, grew quiet as he tried to articulate the heavy toll his job took on him over the past four and a half years -- every day of them during wartime.
Gates remarked about a funeral he attended this week for a Marine killed in Afghanistan. During the service, he peered out over the rows of white tombstones that have been added for war dead at Arlington National Cemetery since he took office.
As the man who signs deployment orders, it has been especially hard.
"That will be with me for the rest of my life," Gates, whose last full day as defense secretary is Thursday, said in an interview with Reuters in his Pentagon office.
President Barack Obama has said Gates will go down in history as one of America's greatest defense secretaries. The soft-spoken former CIA director, however, appears uncomfortable at the accolades as he leaves office.
He joked at one point that all farewell praise has made him feel "like I'm attending my own wake."
Recruited in 2006 at the height of the unpopular Iraq war by then-President George W. Bush, Gates stayed on to become one of Obama's most trusted advisers, helping guide U.S. policy in Iraq and the troop buildup in Afghanistan.
He appears proud about what the United States has accomplished in Iraq but offers no guarantees about the road ahead, and openly frets about Iranian complicity in attacks against U.S. forces, due to leave by the end of 2011.
"It's messy but if things go wrong in Iraq at this point, it's not our fault," Gates said, calling Iraq, for all its flaws, still the most advanced democracy in the Arab world.
"It's up to the Iraqis at this point and has been for the past couple of years. And frankly, at this point, I think they're doing OK."
Obama last week announced a faster withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan than his military advisers recommended, a move Gates defended in the face of crumbling domestic support for the decade-old war.
Nearly 70,000 U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan even after the cuts announced by Obama, about twice the number when he took office in January 2009 -- a buildup that Gates had supported.
"The president had a real tightwire to walk in terms of balancing military risk and political risk," Gates said.
"It wouldn't make any difference if the president said 'keep them there another two years' if the Congress wouldn't vote the money." [ID:nN1E75R231]
Gates was the first defense secretary to serve under Democratic and Republican presidents, which gave him rare credibility within both parties in Congress and, eventually, a powerful voice in the Obama administration.
He used that credibility to help reshape Afghan war strategy and to ramp up funding for armored vehicles that better shielded troops from roadside bombs -- insurgents' weapon of choice to kill and maim U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than 4,400 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since that war began in 2003 and more than 1,500 have died in Afghanistan.
Gates regularly visited injured troops in hospitals. He had photos taken with them and says he'll carry them with him for the rest of his life. He also gave wounded veterans his phone number, in case they had trouble receiving care.
"I'm not sure I ever told anybody this, I have business cards. And the only place I ever pass them out is at the hospitals," Gates said.
He would tell wounded troops: "If they're giving you a hard time, they're not doing right by you ... you hold it up and say: 'don't make me use this.'" He added he's actually had top generals follow up on calls.
NOT A VISIONARY?
Asked about his regrets, Gates noted that some critics had accused him of not being a "bold visionary."
"And my response was: it's kind of tough to be a bold visionary in the middle of two wars," he said.
"Probably, as I reflect and have time to think about things, I'll think of things that I should have done better, could have done better. But frankly I've just been too busy to do any navel-gazing."
Leon Panetta, the outgoing CIA director who will replace Gates, is part of Obama's inner national security circle and is not expected to chart a new course for U.S. military policy.
Still, he could add new perspective to the host of U.S. national security challenges. Among the most worrisome for Gates, apart from Afghanistan, are Iran and North Korea, "very dangerous situations" that will be left to his successor.
"I think that the Iranians are being very aggressive. They are trying, happily to not much effect yet, to exploit the Arab Spring," he said, referring to a wave of democratic revolts that led to the ouster of rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and uprisings in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
And in Iraq, he said, Iran is "absolutely complicit in the growing casualties we have. ... They supply the weapons and the technology and the training. And clearly seem to be intent on ramping up our casualties to the extent possible to make it appear -- first of all, prevent a longer-term U.S. presence after the end of the year. And second, when we do leave, to make it appear that they drove us out."
Another battle awaiting his successor is the military budget. Obama has publicly announced plans to slash $400 billion in security outlays by 2023.
Gates, a strong opponent of deep cuts in military spending, said the Pentagon wasn't driving the $1.4 trillion U.S. budget deficit and even a "disastrous" 10 percent cut would only reduce the U.S. budget shortfall by some $50 billion -- about 4 percent.
"We are not the problem," he said.
But if Gates, who served eight presidents over four decades, is uneasy about the thought of leaving a post where he can help shape U.S. policy, he's not showing it.
Asked about the prospect of White House discussions where his views won't be heard, Gates said: "I'm not worried about me not being in the room at all."
(Additional reporting by David Alexander and Missy Ryan; Editing by Paul Simao)