War Stories

After Rumsfeld

What Robert Gates can achieve in the next two years.

Robert Gates 

Many thanks to White House counselor Daniel Bartlett for clarifying just what’s wrong with President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Over the weekend, Bartlett was asked whether the nomination of Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense signaled the triumph of Bush’s father and a broader return to pragmatism. Bartlett, who reportedly took part in the discussions about ousting Rumsfeld, replied:

It dumbs this whole thing down to say that this is the victory of the pragmatists over the ideologues. We are going to be practical in some respects, and ideological in others.


Quite an admission: If the opposite of “ideological” is “practical,”  that means whenever the Bush administration has been the former (nearly all the time on high-profile issues like Iraq and Iran), it has, ipso facto,not been the latter.


Bartlett’s remark is reminiscent of—and, perhaps unwittingly, confirms—the comment that a Bush “senior adviser” made to journalist Ron Suskind two years ago that the days of the “reality-based community” were over. “We’re an empire now,” this ill-educated adviser boasted, “and when we act, we create our own reality.”

This has been the problem all along—a willful neglect, even defiance, of reality. To be a visionary is one thing; to have visions is another.


Gates, by all accounts, falls into neither category—and that seems to be why Bush now wants him for the job. But what practical things can this pragmatist accomplish in the mere two years that he’ll have at the helm of the Pentagon?

It’s instructive to look back at Clark Clifford, the closest thing to a precedent. President Lyndon B. Johnson named Clifford defense secretary to replace Robert McNamara as the Vietnam War—”McNamara’s war,” many called it—was taking increasingly disastrous turns.

Clifford held the job for just eleven months, from March 1, 1968, to Jan. 20, 1969—less than half the time Gates will have. Though he was a pre-eminent member of the Washington establishment (an establishment that no longer exists), he was not a defense insider. (His law partner at the time, Paul Warnke, said that Clifford wouldn’t have known how to drive to the Pentagon before LBJ asked him to run the place.)


Much of McNamara’s legacy, he left untouched—nuclear strategy, NATO reforms, the application of “systems analysis” to decisions about weapons procurement. The Pentagon’s day-to-day management, he left in the hands of the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Nitze.

But Clifford accomplished the one thing Johnson brought him there to do: He began the disengagement from Vietnam.

Clifford had no political stance on the issue. When a reporter asked if he was a hawk or a dove, he replied, “I am not conscious of falling under any of those ornithological distinctions.” But Johnson wanted peace talks, as did the Democratic establishment. So, Clifford ordered a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, set a limit on the number of U.S. troops sent there, and told the South Vietnamese they’d have to assume a greater share of the burden. (Richard Nixon reversed this course and escalated the bombing after he became president in 1969. But if Nixon hadn’t won the election, Clifford might now be known as the man who laid the path toward a much earlier end to the war.)


It’s not quite clear what George W. Bush wants Robert Gates to do. But it’s doubtful Gates would have come back to Washington, from his pleasant perch as president of Texas A&M, if the job description read “staying the course on Iraq.”


Just what steps he’ll take on Iraq will become clearer when James Baker’s commission releases its recommendations. Since Gates was an active member of the panel, it is widely assumed that the report will become the new policy.

Whether that assumption is right, and whatever the report ends up saying, here are some practical steps that Gates can take immediately upon entering office:

  • Start to redeploy U.S. troops inside Iraq, with an eye toward withdrawing one-half to two-thirds of them by the end of next year. Victory, in the sense that Bush defined it at the outset, is no longer possible. A consensus seems to be forming around a less ambitious, more realistic mission. Senior military officers are openly stressing the goal of a self-sustaining Iraqi government, not a democratic one. Proposals are circulating for U.S. forces to assume a much lower profile—retreating to their massive “forward operating bases,” abandoning street patrols and counterinsurgency efforts (for which we don’t have enough troops in any case), and focusing instead on logistics, air support, intelligence, border security, and the training of the Iraqi army. These tasks can be sustained with around 30,000 troops. An additional 10,000 troops or so could be sent out with Iraqi units as embedded advisers. Fort Riley, Kan., home of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, has started to train midlevel officers to be such advisers at the rate of 2,000 a month.
  • Increase the size of the U.S. Army by about 80,000 combat personnel. Many Democratic and Republican lawmakers favor this move. The ground forces are exhausted from their frequent combat rotations. The National Guard and Reserves have been misused as the instruments of a backdoor draft. There is not a single serious military analyst who doesn’t think the U.S. Army is too small. Well, actually, there is one—Donald Rumsfeld.
  • Kick some gumption into the active-duty officer corps. It is pathetic to see so many three- and four-star generals reduced to quivering yes-men by the dismissive vindictiveness of the sitting secretary of defense. Their kowtowing may be motivated by respect for civilian authority, but obeying lawful orders is different from abrogating professional responsibility. The master-servant relationship that Rumsfeld has established with his officers—and which his officers have too obsequiously accepted—is a terrible thing for morale; it sets an intimidating example to career officers of lower rank; and, most of all, it’s bad for national security. A defense secretary shouldn’t feel he has to take an officer’s advice—quite often, he shouldn’t—but he should at least hear it in unvarnished form. If Gates’ tenure is to be a period of restoration, one of the most useful things he could do is to persuade senior officers that they can speak their minds again without fear of demotion or reprisal.