Robert Gates is the latest example of how President Bush turns to his dad's network to patch things up
Within the tightknit world of Bush family and friends, it came as no surprise when the president named Robert Gates as his new defense secretary. President Bush has, after all, turned to members of his father's governing team on a regular basis to bail him out of jams or give him a lift. He chose Dick Cheney, his father's defense secretary, as his running mate in 2000. He brought in James Baker, his dad's secretary of state, to run the legal operation that gave him the presidency in 2000. He recruited Andrew Card, his father's transportation secretary and confidant, as his first White House chief of staff. He named Condoleezza Rice, his father's Russia expert, to be national security adviser and promoted her to secretary of state. Now James Baker is back at the center of the action as cochairman of the Iraq Study Group, which will make recommendations on a new Iraq policy in the next several weeks.
The choice of Gates allows the commander in chief to at least create the perception that he is looking for a fresh start in Iraq. Certainly Gates doesn't have the baggage of Donald Rumsfeld, the man he will replace at the Pentagon and widely considered the architect of the war. Equally important, as a private citizen, Gates has criticized the administration for failing to use diplomacy aggressively enough to extract the United States from Iraq. And Gates has a track record of success. He was part of George Herbert Walker Bush's national-security team, one of the best in recent years. "The father's team has a proven track record," says a member of 41's administration. "They handled the dissolution of communism, the falling apart of the Soviet Union, the Persian Gulf War, the liberation of Panamaand all were successes. These are people who knew what they were doing."
Leaving the Aggies. Gates, president of Texas A&M University, site of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, was deputy national security adviser under George Herbert Walker Bush and director of central intelligence from 1991 to 1993. "He's pragmatic; he's a listener; he builds coalitions," says a former adviser to the father. That makes him a typical acolyte of the elder Bushand the opposite of the arrogant Rumsfeld. The hallmarks of the elder Bush's national-security team were caution, pragmatism, and a commitment to diplomacy. This is far different from the central premises underlying the younger Bush's foreign policya belief in preventive war, a de-emphasis on international coalitions, and a campaign to spread democracy around the world.
Former aides to the father and some GOP advisers to the current White House think the departure of Rumsfeld, a longtime pal and ally of Dick Cheney, will leave the hard-line vice president isolated in the government. Others aren't so sure. No one knows whether Bush is ready to budge from his commitment to winning the war in Iraq and creating a democracya stance that Cheney strongly endorses.
Yet even if Bush does not make big changes in Iraq policy, there were many political and PR advantages to making the Pentagon move. Dumping Rumsfeld, 74, and naming Gates, 63, on the day after the election, Bush managed to shift the media's attention away from the GOP's disastrous losses on November 7. It also gave Bush some breathing room as he tries to rebuild public and congressional support for the Iraq war. Bush and his senior advisers acknowledge that a big reason for their setbacks at the polls was growing opposition to that conflict. By pushing Rumsfeld out, Bush removed the biggest symbol of his Iraq policy and a very divisive figure in Washington.
Bush hopes that removing Rumsfeld will mute criticism of his Iraq policy and give the Democrats and the public some evidence that he is willing to seriously consider alternatives. In the meantime, he and his advisers hope the situation improves on the ground so there will be less pressure to pull out.
Beyond that, the administration will probably have an easier time with the patient and amiable Gates rather than the brittle and confrontational Rumsfeld in dealing with the expected blizzard of subpoenas and oversight hearings by Democrat-controlled committees in Congress. Gates can always say he wasn't part of the earlier decision making and slip the questions.
What's more, the close Gates-Rice working relationship on the Bush 41 National Security Council staff holds out the prospect of repairing what had been an often dysfunctional relationship between the Pentagon and the State Department during the Rumsfeld years.
It wasn't the first time that Bush asked Gates to sign up. The former CIA director was asked to serve as deputy secretary of state and, on another occasion, as director of national intelligence. But he turned down both job offers, telling friends that neither assignment would have given him enough authority or autonomy. It remains to be seen whether Bush will really give him the kind of power he wants as head of defense.
This story appears in the November 20, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.