Donald Rumsfeld’s out, Robert Gates is in, and you can call it a belated victory for President George W. Bush’s father. The elder Bush has long despised Rumsfeld, and it is widely suspected that the son hired his father’s nemesis six years ago as an assertion of his own independence.
Gates and Rumsfeld worked in the White House at the same time, back in the mid-’70s when Gerald Ford was president, but they’re otherwise as different in style and substance as two ambitious insiders can be. And that’s probably why, in the wake of this week’s electoral disaster, the president has named the one to replace the other.
Rumsfeld has always been the hard-driving ex-wrestler—aggressive, dominating, and ideological. (Henry Kissinger, who was maneuvered out of the White House by Rumsfeld, once called him the most ruthless man he’d ever met—and Kissinger had met some of the 20th century’s most ruthless.)
Gates is more the get-along scholar—professional, fastidious, and nonpartisan. If George W. Bush was looking for an utterly uncontroversial figure to calm nerves, settle bureaucratic hostilities, and re-establish credibility on Capitol Hill, he could have found no one more suitable than Robert Gates.
And, until today, Gates has owed his key advancements to Bush 41.
When George H.W. Bush nominated Gates as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1991, it was an act of extraordinary confidence. Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had tried to do the same thing four years earlier, in 1987, after William Casey was felled by a brain tumor. But the nomination was withdrawn after concerns were raised about Gates’ role in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The withdrawal was ironic. Gates had risen through the agency’s analytical ranks—he joined the agency as a Soviet specialist in 1966, straight out of college—and he would have been the first CIA director to have done so. Like many analysts, he distrusted the covert-ops branches. Although he was Casey’s trusted chief of staff and then his deputy director, he did not, for instance, share his boss’s enthusiasm for the Nicaraguan contras and their war against the Sandinistas; he saw it as a diversion from more-serious threats.
When Bush became president in 1989, he brought Gates to the White House as deputy national security adviser under Brent Scowcroft. When the CIA director’s job came open again two years later, Bush gave him a second chance, and this time he got in.
Throughout his Washington career, Gates cut a deliberately low profile. He worked in four administrations, of both parties, and stirred few feathers in any of them. I wrote a profile of Gates in 1987, when Reagan first tried to make him CIA director. (I was national-security reporter for the Boston Globe at the time.) Everyone I interviewed in the intelligence community used the same words to describe him: “extremely professional,” “an excellent scholar,” “not an ideologue,” “a tough taskmaster.” Some were critical. “He’s not a guy to break new ground,” one CIA official who’d worked with him told me. “I found him to be the perfect staff officer, an enthusiastic guy, an applauder.”
All these traits probably sum up what Bush—and both his partisans and his critics—are looking for: a soothing conciliator who also keeps his nose to the grindstone.
What will Gates do in the job? It’s hard to say. Since going to work at Texas A&M in 1999—first as dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service, then as the university’s president—he hasn’t made many statements about foreign or defense policy.
Still, three facts suggest that Gates might be something other than a caretaker in his tenure at the Pentagon.
First, Gates was tapped by President George W. Bush to be the national intelligence director when that job was created last year. Gates reportedly spent two weeks mulling over the offer, but he turned it down in part because he didn’t want to go back to Washington, in part because he realized that the post would give him little authority to make policy or to hire and fire people. It’s a fair inference that he wouldn’t have taken the Pentagon job, either, without assurances that he’d have leeway to make big changes.
Second, Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group chaired by James Baker (Bush’s father’s closest friend and adviser). Some who have testified before the group say that, judging from some of his remarks, Gates (like nearly everyone on the panel) is well-aware that the administration’s policy in Iraq is a disaster. At his press conference this morning, President Bush said that he’ll meet with Baker’s group early next week. With a member of the panel in charge of the Pentagon, any changes Baker recommends now have a much better chance of being adopted.
Third, Rumsfeld’s ouster might—I emphasize might—signal a major setback for Vice President Dick Cheney. Rumsfeld and Cheney have been friends and allies since the mid-1970s, when they worked in the White House together under Nixon and Ford. Cheney brought Rumsfeld into the current administration. Especially during George W. Bush’s first term, the two formed a pincer to cut off and beat back dissenting advice from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Did Cheney, who knows how to count votes, accede to Rumsfeld’s ouster? Or did Bush make the move over Vice’s objections? Either way, Cheney’s influence is far from finished—he still has his parallel National Security Council inside the White House—but it looks like his network across the river is about to be shut down. Will this also mean the end of the duo’s outlook on the world and the policies that have resulted—the instinctive reliance on force, secrecy, and black-bag jobs? How Gates weighs in on this administration’s intramural skirmishes may be one of the more intriguing questions of the remaining two years.