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The un-Rumsfeld: Robert Gates's way at Defense

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2007


When Robert Gates took over at Texas A&M University in 2002, he piqued students' curiosity when he began joining members of the school's storied Corps of Cadets on early- morning runs, often joking that he wanted to lead the pack of runners because otherwise he'd get left behind.

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For a man known to lead by example, the morning runs were the kind of thing that gave Mr. Gates, an outsider, the entree he needed and allowed him to use his presidency to gently remake the school as he wanted it. Now, having left that job reluctantly in December to become secretary of Defense, he is finding those leadership skills fully tested by an unpopular war, a stretched-to-the-limit military, an increasingly critical Congress, and a restive public.

So far, his report card looks promising.

In the three months since he moved to the Pentagon, Gates has clearly established himself as a pragmatist and effective navigator of the Washington bureaucracy whose low-key style belies an insistence on accountability and a willingness to act decisively when crises threaten to spiral out of control, observers say. Perhaps most important, he is the un-Donald Rumsfeld.

While the former Pentagon boss was seen as blustery and combative and put ill- prepared underlings on the defensive, Gates is quickly becoming known as an analytical thinker and consensus-builder, listening to all sides before asserting his authority. "I think the management style we're seeing in D.C. is quintessential Bob Gates," says Doug Slack, who knew Gates when Professor Slack was the speaker of the faculty senate at Texas A&M in College Station. "He's a guy who listens and then takes action."

There is no better example of that style in his short tenure at the Pentagon than earlier this month when he reacted angrily – and publicly – to the Army's slow response to dilapidated facilities at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He ultimately forced the resignations of the secretary of the Army and the Army's surgeon general. And last Tuesday, Gates acknowledged the misstep of his senior military adviser, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, who expressed his personal views of homosexuality. General Pace's personal views "don't have a place here," Gates said.

The Defense secretary is also credited with leading the way to increase the size of the military, announcing within weeks that he would grow the Army and Marine Corps over the next five years, and introducing troop-friendly initiatives such as expanding a program that would pay them for deploying for early or extended combat stays. Assuring lawmakers that he did not return to Washington to be a "bump on a log," Gates says he will speak truth to power. That posture has helped President Bush move forward with an escalation of the war in Iraq to a doubting Congress now seemingly forced to play a game of wait and see.

Affable but serious, Gates has already garnered the respect of officials in the halls of the Pentagon, but he is seen more than just a Mr. Fix-It at the Defense Department. The diplomatic community has warmed to him, and to some observers, it's no coincidence that the Bush administration has reversed itself and is now engaging directly with Iran and Syria.

"I suspect that Bob Gates could be the most powerful man in Washington if he chose to be," says Paul Eaton, a retired Army two-star general and vocal critic of Mr. Rumsfeld and the war effort.