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.
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.
Last March, days after the selection of Nouri Kamal al-Maliki as prime minister, Rumsfeld stared at the ceiling, noticeably uninterested, at a news conference while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fielded reporters' questions about the worsening sectarian violence.
Gates, by contrast, leaves no doubt that he sees fixing Iraq as his overriding mission.
He is still working out a public style in a position that brings much more attention than that given a college president or even a CIA director.
"I'm new at this," he reminded reporters at a news conference on Thursday with Iraq Defense Minister Abdel-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi.
Perhaps he recognizes that his best management tool, at least for now, is to be seen as the anti-Rumsfeld, a persona that will buy him time to consider far-reaching changes in strategy.
Certainly it helped him win bipartisan confirmation in the Senate, winning over Democrats who favored setting a rapid date for beginning troop withdrawals and Republicans who want to send reinforcements.
Just over a month ago, Gates was a member of the Iraq Study Group, apparently as comfortable as the panel's other members with recommending a major shift in Iraq strategy aimed at getting US combat troops out by early 2008.
"I didn't dream at that time I would have actual responsibility for what goes forward," Gates told reporters last week, in a statement that seemed to indicate he was having sudden doubts about at least some of the study group's recommendations for getting out quickly.
Since taking office, he has said publicly several times that the responsibilities of his office -- and the need not to fail in Iraq -- are weighing heavily on him.
He has even taken to repeating one of Rumsfeld's favorite lines about Iraq -- that the problems there will not be solved by the US military, but by the diplomats at the State Department and by the Iraqi government.
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