Gates: the Anti-Rumsfeld?

In a recent report on the German media’s coverage of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ letter to the German defense minister, John Rosenthal noted that one German Green Party officials said Gates’ letter “represented a ‘relapse’ to the ‘Rumsfeld period.'”

Fred Kaplan’s must-read profile of Gates in Sunday’s New York Times magazine makes it clear just how inapt that comparison is. The traits that “distinguish Gates from his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld,” according to Kaplan, are “caution as opposed to brashness, attention more to particulars than to grand theory and a view of history as a set of warning bells, not an outmoded mind-set to be transcended.”

Kaplan also shows how Gates has a much different, and more constructive, approach to getting things done in government. It seems he is much more effective in managing relations with the uniformed military, with Congress and with other agencies. This attention to what might be called office politics (in what is perhaps the biggest office in the world) has helped him institute change with less friction:

“It’s really important, if you want lasting change, to involve the professionals in the institution. Because then the solution, at the end of the day, is their solution, and they’re going to defend it once the person who initiated it is long gone. I think that a lot of people who come to government, often from business” — as Rumsfeld did, though Gates didn’t cite this example — “don’t understand how big public bureaucracies work and the capacity of the bureaucracy to outlast anybody.”

Another anecdote from the Kaplan profile illustrates what we’ve identified previously as a major dysfunction of the early Bush administration: the tendency of Rumsfeld and others, with the seeming acquiescence of Bush, to undermine the entire U.S. foreign-policy-making process. The contribution of every element of U.S. national power to foreign policy is supposed to get coordinated and debated in the National Security Council. But this didn’t happen in the NSC under Rice, Kaplan reports:

During his confirmation hearings for defense secretary, Gates said that he had supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But when Mark Dayton, the Democratic senator from Minnesota, asked if he thought in retrospect that the war was now a mistake, Gates replied, “That’s a judgment the historians are going to have to make” — not a ringing endorsement, though also carefully ambiguous. In my two meetings with him, he declined to elaborate further. To Gates’s way of thinking, the question at this point is irrelevant. We are there. What do we do about it now?

A debate on this question was held in the White House over a period of weeks last summer — and one noteworthy thing about it is that a debate took place at all. Rumsfeld rarely expressed his views during interagency meetings. In many instances, his frequent ally, Cheney, would present their side to Bush later, in private. After this pattern became clear, Colin Powell, the secretary of state during Bush’s first term, started occasionally resorting to the same tactic. All the major players were pushing their positions in end runs. Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, lacked the ability to control them. Bush himself never laid down the law or demanded a stop to the game playing. As a result, on many vital issues, he never heard significant debate. Now, arguments are often carried out in front of the president, and Gates spends a lot of time at the White House, making sure his position is heard.

This dovetails with a lot of previous reporting on this seemingly esoteric but very important issue of the foreign policy process, including our own Roland Flamini’s highlighting of the testimony of former British Ambassador to the United States Sir Christopher Meyer.