WASHINGTON — If confirmed as secretary of Defense, Robert Gates is likely to manage the Pentagon with more grace and less conflict than his assertive predecessor, say some who know the new nominee.
And in this case, a change in style might result in a change in substance. Skilled at building consensus, a realist who adapts to conditions as he finds them, Mr. Gates might find it easier to urge a change in course in Iraq than did Donald Rumsfeld – who was a chief architect of the administration's Iraq policies, after all.
Gates's appointment might yet turn out to be merely symbolic. President Bush, not his secretary of Defense, is the ultimate arbiter of US strategy. But at the moment it appears the administration is more open to a fresh perspective on Iraq than at any time since a US-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein 3-1/2 years ago.
"The war's going the wrong way," says Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army general who also served as President Clinton's drug czar. "This is a terrific choice to help think through what are we actually going to do."
Unlike Mr. Rumsfeld, Gates spent decades working his way up through Washington's national security bureaucracy. He has been both an entry-level employee and director at the Central Intelligence Agency, for instance. He worked at the National Security Council (NSC) under the first President Bush, where one of his colleagues was current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Thus he understands the process of developing policy, and may have a realistic regard for the strengths and weaknesses of those under him.
"He was very well regarded in government as someone who can get things done," says Robert Hutchings, a diplomat-in-residence at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School who worked for Gates on the NSC staff from 1989-92.
Gates is collegial by nature, and has worked with Vice President Dick Cheney in the past, as well as Secretary Rice, points out Dr. Hutchings.
Alluding to Rumsfeld's efforts to exert influence over the intelligence community, Hutchings adds that Gates "probably will be disinclined to set up rival ... intelligence units that serve up what the Pentagon leadership wants to hear."
Gates is currently president of Texas A&M University. That job is more analogous to secretary of Defense than one might think, says Robert McTeer, Texas A&M chancellor. For one, faculty members and senior military leaders may hold similar attitudes toward institutional leadership. Both groups believe they're running things, says Mr. McTeer. Both also need to be consulted and brought to consensus before major decisions are made.
"Being a college president is a very delicate thing, because ... you have to get buy-in from the faculty," says McTeer.
But even if welcomed by senior military leaders, Gates might have trouble instituting Pentagon change, say others. By the time he leaves office, Rumsfeld is likely to be the longest-serving US secretary of Defense. He has had a lot of time to institutionalize his attitudes toward military transformation and budgeting, and to promote his allies, both civilian and military, into top department positions.
Gates has been out of government for years, says Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank. "It will take him six months," he says, "just to figure out where the bathrooms are in the remodeled Pentagon."
With only two years left in Mr. Bush's term, his new Defense secretary might best be seen as a caretaker on both military and Iraq policy, says Mr. Goure. Gates "accepted the job, I think, with the clear message from the president that it ain't over 'til we win," he says.
Democrats, for their part, say they will use their newly won congressional majorities to press for more changes in security policy than mere personnel replacements.
They might get their opportunity even before the new Congress is sworn in next year. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia plans an Iraq hearing for next week, with top military and intelligence officials set to appear. Senator Warner also says he wants to hold Gates's confirmation hearings this year – which could become a forum exploring all aspects of the Iraq conflict.
Next year Democrats are likely to push legislation calling for a yet-unspecified troop withdrawal from Iraq. They may add bills calling for more money for veterans and special forces, and for the repair of military equipment damaged in Iraq fighting.
Such moves will signal unhappy US voters, and Iraqis, that the US intends for the Iraqis to take greater responsibility for their fate, say Democratic leaders.
• News wires were used in this report.