After Secretary of Defense-designate Robert Gates assumes his new post later this month, he may find it hard to alter US military weapons programs or the structure of US forces. In essence, the Pentagon is a huge ship that changes direction slowly – and the Bush administration has only two years left to run.
Nor will US options in Iraq change magically when he is sworn in 10 days from now. Dr. Gates brings with him no secret ideas that the Iraq Study Group or other strategic reviews may have missed.
Yet the moment Gates steps into his expansive new office in the Pentagon's outer "E" ring, he could have a profound effect on Washington. The reason: He's not Donald Rumsfeld. As a low-key figure whose nomination met with approval among both Democrats and Republicans, Gates might find it easier than his predecessor would have to shape a more bipartisan approach to Iraq and the overall war on terrorism.
"Is there anybody who doesn't think he's a good choice?" says James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow in national security at the Heritage Foundation. "It's an enormous opportunity to get the politics out of this."
What may change immediately after Gates takes up his post is the atmosphere in the Pentagon's top echelons.
Rumsfeld famously challenged the military bureaucracy, issuing memos, requests for information, and other internal documents with a blizzardlike intensity. By way of contrast, cannonades of paperwork don't appear to be part of Gates's bureaucratic style.
Throughout his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Gates emphasized that he would have a lot of listening to do in the early stages of his new job. He'd have to consult with military commanders, he said, before deciding what should be done in Iraq.
But with his clipped answer of "no" to a question as to whether the US is winning in Iraq, Gates made it clear that he agreed with the Iraq Study Group that the current approach is not working.
"I do think he feels that Iraq is a catastrophe, and he is there to try and do something about that," says Gary Sick, executive director of the Gulf 2000 project at Columbia University, who worked with Gates in the Ford and Carter administrations. "I think he's getting ready to really do battle."
Gates is a pragmatist, not an ideologue, says his former colleague. That was clear when the incoming secretary of Defense indicated during his hearing that any US military action against Syria or Iran would be highly unlikely, says Mr. Sick. "To me, that's a different brand of political action" than that espoused by the neoconservatives who urged the invasion of Iraq, he says.
In calling for a unified approach to Iraq policy, Gates struck the right note, says Dr. Carafano.
Also important were Gates's insistence on the need for continued big defense budgets, and his support for missile defense, Carafano adds.
But when it comes to actually allocating money to priorities, Gates won't have much time to make changes. There are only two budget cycles left to prepare before the next administration takes office. Furthermore, next year's budget has largely been drawn up. The last budget in an administration is often a slapdash exercise, due to political concerns.
"Practically, is there much that Gates can really do differently?", says Carafano. "No, not really."
But if nothing else, Gates has managed the rare feat of becoming less controversial over time, at least in terms of Senate confirmation struggles.
•In 1987, Gates was nominated to head the Central Intelligence Agency by President Ronald Reagan, but withdrew from consideration after it became clear that the Senate would reject him due to controversy over his role in aspects of the Iran-contra affair, a clandestine arrangement in the 1980s that gave money to Nicaraguan contra rebels from profits gained through selling weapons to Iran.
•In 1991, Gates was again tapped to head the CIA, this time by President George H.W. Bush. He won Senate approval after months of hearings. Thirty-one Democrats voted against him.
•In 2006, Gates's nomination to head the Pentagon was subjected to one day of hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The panel Tuesday approved the posting unanimously. On Wednesday, the full Senate slid Gates through, confirming him by the lopsided vote of 95 to 2.
Some Democrats who voted against Gates in 1991 voted for him this time – notably, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. The senators who voted against him were Republicans normally supportive of the administration – Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who lost his reelection bid last month, and Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky.
"Mr. Gates has repeatedly criticized our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan without providing any viable solutions to the problems our troops currently face," said Senator Bunning, explaining his "no" vote.
According to the White House, Gates will not be sworn in until Dec. 18 due to commitments in his current job as president of Texas A&M University.