TURN AND WALK? RUMSFELDS EXIT MEANS REVIVED PENTAGON PRAGMATISM
By Demetri Sevastopulo and Edward Luce
Financial Times (UK)
November 9, 2006
Next Monday, a meeting of Washington notables will take place that will be all the more influential for the absence of one of its key members.
Assembling for the first time since the Democratic party regained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the mid-term congressional elections, the Iraq Study Group will be missing Robert Gates, one of its 10 commissioners, whom President George W. Bush on Wednesday appointed to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary.
Led by James Baker, former secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic legislator, the ISG was formed this year at the request of the then Republican Congress to help Mr. Bush find his way out of the morass in Iraq.
With the appointment of Mr. Gates, the embattled U.S. president made clear that his administration was finally abandoning an Iraq strategy that most of Washington had long written off as defunct -- and implicitly jettisoning the unilateralist diplomacy that has characterized his six years in office.
But the appointment also highlighted the growing influence of a coterie of men close to Mr. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush -- who include Mr. Baker and Mr. Gates. Mr. Gates' appointment could not have sent a clearer signal, according to experts. It might almost be described as peaceful regime change. Or, as one diplomat half-jokingly puts it: "Bush senior is back."
The resurgence of this group of Republicans close to Mr. Bush senior, whose views were largely ignored until Washington recognized that Iraq had descended into chaos, comes as the neo-conservatives who previously held sway over the president were increasingly distancing themselves from the war they once championed.
In the next issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Richard Perle, the former chairman of the defense policy board who was one of the leading proponents of invading Iraq, and Kenneth Adelman, who famously predicted the invasion would be a "cake walk," castigate the White House foreign policy team that included Mr. Rumsfeld.
Meanwhile, some of the most visceral critics of the Bush administration may hold their fire following Mr. Gates' appointment. "The Gates appointment is the best that President Bush has made in the course of his six years in office," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, the hawkish national security adviser when Jimmy Carter was president.
"He is a remarkably intelligent, responsible, and balanced individual, whose judgment can be trusted and whose commonsense is reassuring. This appointment may be marking the beginning of a major corrective in American policy towards the Middle East."
But while the reception to the nomination of Mr. Gates was almost universally positive, some wonder whether Mr. Bush is really on the verge of making a big shift. "My big question is, with [vice-president Dick] Cheney still on the watch, can Bob Gates, Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton, and the crew, including Brent Scowcroft and anybody else who is advising them behind the scenes, actually make this president change direction in a substantial way?" asks Colonel Larry Wilkerson, a noted Rumsfeld critic who served as chief of staff to Colin Powell, secretary of state during the first four years of the current Bush administration.
Whether Mr. Gates, who was lured from his position as head of Texas A&M University, can live up to such expectations is doubtful. But the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who was appointed to that role by Mr. Bush senior in 1991, can draw on his strong friendship with Mr. Baker, whose report on the war the president now says he eagerly awaits.
Before the Democratic victory, many doubted whether Mr. Bush would accept the ISG's recommendations, which are likely to include an option for a "phased redeployment" of U.S. troops from Iraq and a simultaneous diplomatic effort to engage Iraq's neighbors, including Iran. But following Tuesday's unexpectedly large electoral rebuke, which was widely interpreted as a referendum on Mr. Bush's profoundly unpopular Iraq strategy, the president will find it much harder to spurn Mr. Baker's blueprint.
In his unusually conciliatory and eloquent public address on Wednesday, Mr. Bush emphasized that he was looking forward to receiving the ISG's findings. "As we work with the new leaders in Congress, I'm also looking forward to hearing the views of the bipartisan ISG," said Mr. Bush. "The group is assessing the situation in Iraq and is expected to provide recommendations on a way forward." Mr. Bush added that he would meet members of the ISG early next week.
Few in Washington doubt that the ISG's aim is to provide a respectable way for Mr. Bush to disengage with Iraq. But according to senior participants in the ISG, its recommendations are likely to extend much further than Iraq. For example, Mr. Baker is well known to be impatient with the Bush administration's refusal to talk to rogue regimes, such as Iran and Syria, both of which border Iraq.
One administration official from the first Bush term says Mr. Baker, who has recently met senior officials from Syria and Iran, will recommend that Washington should hold direct talks with Damascus and Tehran. Col Wilkerson predicts that the ISG will recommend a strategy of "turn and walk" as opposed to the "cut and run" strategy that Republicans accused Democrats of pushing. "Bob was a very active member of the Baker-Hamilton group . . . and he will bring that knowledge into the secretariat," says Col. Wilkerson. "If the president is convinced that Jim [Baker] has some salient points -- and I think he will be -- Bob will be the person from Defense's perspective to implement those points and change direction."
The former secretary of state, who is often described as the Bush family's consigliere [i.e. the chief advisor or aide to a Mafia leader—H.A.], was also the chief driver of the 1991 Israeli-Palestinian peace process that was launched after the first Gulf war. Many believe that the real test of whether Mr. Bush has genuinely changed course -- and whether Mr. Gates has real influence within the White House -- will come in the president's response to the ISG's broader advice on Iran and Israel. The report is expected in December or January.
"Baker is going to produce recommendations for the Middle East as a whole," says one official involved with the ISG. "You cannot deal with the Iraq situation by looking at Iraq alone."
For tactical reasons alone, the Democratic party leadership is widely expected to endorse the findings of the ISG. That would unite Congress -- including many in the opposition Republicans, such as John Warner, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee -- with the bipartisan ISG and also with Mr. Gates and possibly even Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush's increasingly independent secretary of state.
It is unclear whether the hawkish Mr. Cheney or the handful of other hard-liners within the administration will still have the clout following the election outcome to persuade Mr. Bush to "stay the course" on Iraq or on the administration's broader Middle East policies. "The Bush administration has operated on a kind of truth serum approach to people -- they are either with you or against you," says a former senior Pentagon official. "That makes it very, very difficult to work for a change of direction from inside."
But Mr. Gates' first task will be to restore the Pentagon's battered morale and, in particular, repair some of the damage that Mr. Rumsfeld is perceived to have done to civil-military relations there. Compared with Mr. Rumsfeld's abrasive way of doing business, Mr. Gates's more inclusive management style is expected to win him instant friends in the building.
Mr. Rumsfeld developed a reputation for dismissing the advice of his top commanders after he sidelined General Eric Shinseki, then chief of staff of the army, who told Congress that the Iraq invasion would require hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops.
"The moment Bob Gates walks through the door of the river entrance, the morale of the armed forces will soar," says Col. Wilkerson.
Mr. Gates must still be confirmed by the Senate -- and he has had difficulty with past confirmation battles. He was first nominated to be CIA director by Ronald Reagan in 1987. But that nomination was withdrawn after questions were raised about his role in the Iran-Contra affair. His 1991 hearings for the CIA job were controversial, marked by charges that he hid information about the episode from congressional investigators, and Mr. Gates admitted he made mistakes in his handling of the affair.
Some Democrats have said they would bring an open mind to his confirmation hearings. But with Mr Gates receiving almost universal praise, he is likely to have far less trouble being confirmed this time.
If confirmed, Mr. Gates is less likely than his predecessor to face resistance from Congress to his choices for senior Pentagon jobs. During Mr. Rumsfeld's tenure, several senators, including Carl Levin, who is thought likely to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee in January, and John McCain, the influential Arizona Republican, delayed the confirmation of nominees as a way to gain leverage over Mr. Rumsfeld.
As ex-CIA director, Mr. Gates is uniquely positioned to help address integration across an intelligence community that includes several separate entities including the National Security Agency, which falls under the Pentagon. John Brennan, a former senior CIA official, says Mr. Gates will be "ideally suited" to marrying military intelligence with the broader intelligence community. One battle that has been fought out quietly around the world is whether CIA operatives or Pentagon special forces should take responsibility for intelligence collection.
Perhaps the most serious long-term issue for Mr. Gates is that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean the military is overstretched. Last year the Pentagon failed to meet its recruiting goals. While it has met the targets this year, critics say the result was achieved by lowering standards for potential recruits.
Mr. Gates will also have to referee battles between the competing services over the allocation of military funding for large ship programs and expensive fighter jet programs such as Lightning II or the Raptor. Some experts say Mr. Gates' management style will iron out some of the tensions that developed under Mr. Rumsfeld but have improved under Gordon England, who succeeded Paul Wolfowitz, now president of the World Bank, as deputy secretary of defense.
One Pentagon official says Mr. Gates will be less inclined to implement an immediate wholesale personnel change at the top of the Pentagon, instead taking his time to assess the changes needed in the defense department.
"This is not a guy who comes in and breaks crockery. He is a manager," says the official.