Robert Gates, President Bush’s choice to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary, may bring more of a change in style than substance to the Pentagon and the fractious debate over Iraq, judging from his statements and the assessment of associates.
“He stands his ground on argument and data and facts, but he does not have a confrontational personality like Rumsfeld does,” said Fritz Ermarth, a former CIA official who worked with Gates at the spy agency over a 20-year period.
Bush announced on Nov. 8, one day after voters thrust Democrats back in control of the House and Senate, that he decided Gates should succeed Rumsfeld to provide “fresh perspective” on the war.
Like Rumsfeld, Gates sees timely intelligence as central to winning the fight against terrorism, favors pushing NATO allies to spend more on defense and views with suspicion China’s military buildup. Unlike Rumsfeld, Gates has no prior Pentagon experience; Rumsfeld was defense secretary in the mid-1970s.
At his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Gates is expected to be questioned in detail on the Iraq war. In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in advance of his hearing, Gates said he supported Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 and indicated that, if confirmed, he would oppose the quick exit some Democrats are pushing.
“I believe that leaving Iraq in chaos would have dangerous consequences both in the region and globally for many years to come,” he wrote.
In hindsight, he added, he might have done some things differently in Iraq. Gates mentioned improving the Pentagon’s planning for managing the immediate aftermath of major combat — a reference to the chaos that engulfed the country once Baghdad fell.
Like Rumsfeld, Gates believes there is no purely military solution in Iraq. He sees the U.S. military role as crucial, but in combination with political efforts by the U.S. and other countries.
Graham, Biden early believers
Gates will do a better job on Iraq, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, “because he has a chance to start over with the American public. He’s not a stakeholder in past mistakes as Secretary Rumsfeld was. He has a chance to re-engage. I intend to vote for him unless he convinces me that he will not support a strategy to win. I’m looking for strategies to win, not political strategies.”
Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who appeared with Graham, R-S.C., on “Fox News Sunday,” said he thinks Gates’ position on Iraq “is much closer to what we need to move to. I will vote for Gates, and I believe Gates will be able to do a good job.”
Gates served on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that is set to present recommendations Wednesday to Bush and Congress on the way forward in a war that has dragged on far longer — at far greater cost — than the administration foresaw. Gates quit the commission when Bush announced his Pentagon nomination.
“His style is different and I welcome it,” said John Deutch, a former CIA director and former deputy secretary of defense who has known Gates for two decades.
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon policy official and former political adviser to the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad, said that Gates “will more likely bring a change of style rather than perspective to the Pentagon.” Rubin added, “Unless Gates can get ahead of the curve, any fresh perspective will be buried under a to-do list thicker than the Yellow Pages.”
Analysts weigh in
Douglas Feith, Rumsfeld’s policy chief the first four years of the Bush administration, said Gates’ opportunity to make major policy changes will be limited by his arrival in the final years of Bush’s second term.
“He’s still operating within an administration that has a lot of developed thoughts. On the other hand, he’s going to be one of the shapers of that thinking from this point forward,” Feith said.
No senator has indicated opposition to Gates’ nomination. Some Democrats have praised him; others say the chief benefit of his confirmation will mean Rumsfeld’s departure.
“He comes in with a temperament and a demeanor that’s going to encourage, I think, cooperation and collaboration, mutual respect with the uniformed services,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. He was alluding to a common criticism of Rumsfeld — that his tough management style discouraged or even stifled the expression of dissenting views.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., voted against Gates’ nomination to head the CIA in 1991. But the senator said after meeting with Gates last week that he will approach the hearing Tuesday with an open mind.
Gates won the 1991 confirmation battle despite being accused of skewing intelligence on the Soviet Union to match his hard-line views. Gates served as head of the CIA until January 1993.
One of Rumsfeld’s most outspoken critics in Congress, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said after meeting with Gates on Thursday that they “got off on the right foot.”
Gates joined the CIA in 1966. He left in 1974 to join the staff of the National Security Council until 1979 when he returned to the spy agency. He rose to deputy director for intelligence in 1982.
Gates’ 1987 nomination to head the CIA was scuttled when he was accused of knowing more than he admitted about the Iran-Contra affair. The Reagan administration secretly had sold arms to Iran in hopes of freeing hostages in Lebanon, and used the money to help the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Gates went to the White House as President Reagan’s deputy national security adviser in 1989 until he took over the CIA in 1991.
Gates left Washington in 1993 and since August 2002 has been president of Texas A&M University.