Mon, Dec 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Robert Gates is very much his own man as defense secretary

Where Rumsfeld was volcanic and opinionated, Gates has come across as humble and open-minded, using the anti-Rumsfeld stance to buy himself time

By David Cloud  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAGHDAD

When US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sat down for breakfast last Thursday with a half-dozen enlisted soldiers here in Iraq, it was not the setting that his aloof predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, would have chosen.

Most often, Rumsfeld would meet with hundreds of troops at once in Iraq, in town-hall style sessions that often resembled rallies. He took questions, made sweeping historical comparisons, and was often cheered by enthusiastic crowds, but never seemed to use the session to collect impressions about conditions outside the heavily fortified US military compounds.

Gates, by contrast, listened patiently for almost an hour at the breakfast while enlisted soldiers offered him their views about everything from strategy and tactics to mundane matters of soldier life.

In a statement never heard in public from the supremely confident Rumsfeld, he closed the session by going around the table one soldier at a time, asking: "What advice would you give me?"

Just days into Gates' tenure, it is easy -- and facile -- to view almost every move he makes as either a deliberate or unconscious repudiation of Rumsfeld. By heading right off to Iraq, scene of Rumsfeld's undoing, Gates has seemed to invite the comparison, even though his one public mention of Rumsfeld since he was sworn in was to praise him.

Where Rumsfeld was volcanic and opinionated, Gates has come across as humble and much more open-minded.

Where Rumsfeld fought to keep troop levels in Iraq low, Gates is assumed to be inching toward recommending increasing US troop levels, even as he professes not to have made up his mind.

When Gates vowed, as he has several times, to rely heavily on advice from the uniformed military, it was seen as a subtle signal that he would not run roughshod over the Pentagon brass the way Rumsfeld was widely criticized for doing.

early impressions

How valid these early impressions of Gates will prove to be, though, is still an open question.

If Gates comes down in favor of a troop increase, it will arguably put him in the same position Rumsfeld often found himself -- at odds with his top generals in Iraq, several of whom who have expressed reservations about increasing US troop levels.

There are other similarities. Both men left Washington for long periods before assuming the defense secretary job. Those who knew Gates during his 27-year tenure at the CIA, where he became the first entry-level analyst to rise all the way to director, say he could be an exacting bureaucratic taskmaster, just like Rumsfeld.

But Rumsfeld returned to Washington determined to accumulate power and run a bureaucracy he viewed as resistant to change, a task he kept at even after the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the invasion of Iraq.

Gates has not returned with sweeping ambitions of transforming the department.

Nor has he brought a coterie of ideologically driven aides with him, as Rumsfeld did initially, and Gates has informed much of Rumsfeld's senior staff, few of whom are now as ideological as they once were, that he wants them to stay on, to minimize disruption.

Certainly the two men are stylistically very different, as Gates' breakfast meeting underscored. On Rumsfeld's visits to Baghdad, he rarely showed much patience for pondering the flaws in US strategy, at least not in public. His answer to questions about stabilizing the country was that it was "tough stuff" but largely up to the Iraqis to accomplish.

This story has been viewed 3179 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top