Late this summer, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. At each stop, high-ranking Arab officials anxiously asked him: was the United States preparing to attack Iran? Gates reassured them all that the United States had no plans to do so, at least any time soon. He wasn't dramatic about it, says a Defense Department official who accompanied Gates on the trip but declined to be identified discussing secret talks. "He didn't grab anyone's arm and say, 'I've got Cheney under control, wink, wink'," says this official. But Gates was low-key, straightforward, steadying—calming, even soothing in a dry and matter-of-fact way. A little later, at the end of September, Gates met with the Democratic Senate Policy Committee (something his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, would never do). One of the senators nervously asked if the Bush administration was looking for a reason to bomb Tehran. "It would be a strategic calamity to attack Iran at this time," Gates replied. Sen. Evan Bayh, who was at the meeting, told NEWSWEEK: "You could almost feel the relief around the table. It was, 'Well, I guess he's not here just to repeat the party line.' It was just such a breath of fresh air from Rumsfeld and the 'my way or the highway' attitude of others."
It has been a tough few years for the old Washington foreign-policy establishment, the sort of moderate, non-ideological types who were reared to believe that partisanship stops at the water's edge. Robert Gates gives them hope that the pendulum is swinging back, that it is possible to forge a foreign policy by consensus and common sense and not wishful thinking or righteous zeal. With characteristic self-effacement (thinly concealing a healthy ego), Gates has described himself as "a sort of global Forrest Gump," a kind of Zelig of cold-war Washington who has served seven presidents (mostly at the CIA) and worked with world figures from Margaret Thatcher to Anwar Sadat to Mikhail Gorbachev. In his 1996 memoirs, Gates noted that he served for nine years at the White House—longer than any president except Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, one of his aides notes that Gates uses his experience as a "weapon." When he is in the office of another cabinet secretary or foreign minister, he might blandly point out that when he met with their predecessors, the furniture was arranged differently—just to let them know "he has been around the track a few times," says the aide.
Right now, Gates is seen as the best insurance that the Bush administration (read: Vice President Cheney) will not leave a legacy of ashes in Iran. According to many former and current government officials who have conferred with Gates publicly and privately, he takes the conventionally accepted view that Iran should not be allowed to build nuclear weapons. He pointedly refuses to rule out military force while calling for more-effective economic sanctions. But the secretary of Defense has also told associates that bombing Iran would create chaos in the oil region, unleash terrorism on Europe and possibly the United States, and serve to strengthen, not weaken, the fragile and fractious Iranian regime—while only postponing for a year or two its nuclear ambitions.
To avoid that scenario, Gates has used his considerable bureaucratic skills to lower the temperature on Iran. He has cautioned military commanders in the Gulf to guard against the risk of accidents that might give a provocation for war—the capture of a pilot, say, or a collision at sea. In recent weeks U.S. commanders in Baghdad have intentionally sought to praise Tehran for being more cooperative in Iraq. According to two separate sources who declined to be identified discussing military plans, Gates has also pared down strike options against Iran, cutting the targets to its nuclear facilities alone. It is a mistake to make too much of this—the military is constantly being asked to devise new options for civilian authorities. But Gates has also allowed the top brass to make public their qualms about attacking Iran, which makes it that much harder for the White House to steamroll them. This is classic Gates: no noisy confrontations with the likes of Cheney, just low-key, pragmatic steps to avoid sparking a conflagration.
It's doubtful that President Bush has made a formal decision on whether to attack Iran, says John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a hard-liner. Still, "the shift is very much away from the use of military force," says Bolton. "If you had asked me a year ago whether the president would use force before he left office if Iran's nuclear program had not been ended some other way, I would have said yes," Bolton told NEWSWEEK. "Now … increasingly my view is that he will not use force." "This shift," he says, "is being driven by both Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice and Secretary Gates." Bolton noted how top military officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen, have indicated they wish to avoid war with Iran. "I think that a lot of comments by the military are actually reflections of what Secretary Gates thinks, and the military are simply making sure they're in line with their boss," says Bolton.
Rice, of course, is closer to the president and has far more direct access to his thoughts and decision-making. She has often traveled to Camp David and worked out with the president in the gym. Gates and his wife, Becky, do not socialize with the First Couple. On the surface, Gates (sometimes called "the anti-Rumsfeld") is principally different from his predecessor in that he doesn't try to dominate and end-run Rice, who, as national-security adviser in Bush's first term, was outmaneuvered and sometimes bullied by the then secretary of Defense. Gates and Rice are friendly and collegial. But Gates exerts a subtle influence on Rice. "He was her boss," former career diplomat James Dobbins points out. In the Bush 41 White House, Rice worked for Gates, who was then deputy national-security adviser. More to the point, she and the president know that it would be impossible, or nearly so, to attack Iran without the support of Gates, for the simple reason that he stands in the chain of command to the military forces that would be used to do the fighting.
A former top national-security official (who asked to remain anonymous discussing the Bush-Gates relationship) says: "Can the president make it [an attack on Iran] happen? Yes. Can it happen quietly and secretly? No. And it wouldn't. The president is not a dummy. If he had the Defense secretary he had in 2001, it would be easy. Rumsfeld would have just said, 'Yes.' But Bush can't do anything over the opposition of the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
Gates is no greenhorn on Iran. During the Iran-contra scandal of the late '80s, Gates, then a senior CIA official, was accused by hard-liners of exaggerating the influence of moderates in Tehran. In 2004, he coauthored a Council on Foreign Relations report calling for a diplomatic, not a military, approach to Iran. Since then, his views on Iran have hardened a bit; still, there is some evidence to suggest that the administration did not know what it was getting with Gates. Former Carter national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told NEWSWEEK that when Rumsfeld resigned right after the 2006 election, Bush's national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley, called Brzezinski to tell him that Gates was taking over at the Pentagon. Brzezinski reminded Hadley that Gates had coauthored a report on Iran. There was a long silence. "What report on Iran?" Hadley finally asked. (Hadley did not respond to requests for comment.)
Gates was picked largely to help fix Iraq and salvage the military, not to bomb Iran. The senior uniformed military view him rather the way settlers in wagon trains viewed the cavalry after an Indian attack. "He could have been Satan, as long as he wasn't Rumsfeld," says the former top national-security official. "They love him at the Pentagon." Gates's management style is diametrically opposed to Rumsfeld's. "Rummy always kept people guessing. You never know what he was doing. Gates is the opposite. He's open and methodical. He tries to build confidence and loyalty." For all Rumsfeld's bluster, he could be oddly indecisive, endlessly circling problems with "360-degree reviews," as they were called. Gates, by contrast, will impose tight deadlines to make sure that decisions get made before incessant rethinking can water down the outcome. (Larry Di Rita, Rumsfeld's former spokesman, says that his old boss sought to be a "transformative" Defense secretary who made some people uncomfortable with the pace and intensity of change.)
Rumsfeld did not disguise his disdain for "nation building," the slow, murky process of winning hearts and minds in unconventional wars. ("What is the difference between hard power and soft power?" he asked at a 2003 conference.) Gates, on the other hand, last week gave a speech in which he came out squarely for soft power—a term coined by a Democrat, Joseph Nye, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the Clinton administration. "One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military-service success is not sufficient to win," Gates told an audience in Kansas City. He cited the need for economic development, police training, institution building and the rule of law, and providing basic services, among other nonviolent tools. "Success will be less a matter of imposing one's will and more a function of shaping behavior," he concluded.
More astonishing to veterans of the political wars on Capitol Hill, he called for more spending for the State Department—to hire more diplomats and aid workers. "It was vintage Gates," says Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, a longtime national-security expert on the Hill. "In the history of the republic, I don't know of any other incident when cabinet secretary A argued that cabinet secretary B needed a bigger budget." She finds Gates's disinterested open-mindedness so remarkable coming from an administration known for its partisan zeal that she says, "I wonder if they knew what they were buying."
Some old Pentagon bulls are not keen about fighting future wars in unconventional ways. They have no taste for waging counterinsurgencies with no front lines or clear-cut distinctions between civilians and soldiers. "There are some in the military who are hoping that this new warfare is a kind of one-off event, and that they can go back to planning for large wars with nation-states," says Senator Bayh. "But I think Bob Gates understands that we are likely to continue to face irregular warfare and need counterinsurgency thinking for some time." Sen. Jack Reed, West Point '71, warns that in the wake of defeat in Vietnam, the Army simply tried to forget about fighting guerrilla wars. He fears the same could happen today, that the generals will say, "Let's get back to what we're good at doing," i.e., fighting straight-ahead battles with tanks and artillery.
Gates is not the sort to directly or loudly confront the unreconstructed Army brass, no more so than Cheney's office. But the meaning was not lost on anyone when Gen. David Petraeus was brought back from Iraq to preside over a promotions board choosing the next crop of generals. In addition to commanding forces in Iraq, Petraeus is the chief architect of the Army's new approach to counterinsurgency. It is widely believed that he was brought home with Gates's approval to make sure the traditionalists did not pass over the bright young commanders who showed flair in Iraq.
Unlike Rumsfeld, Gates almost never raises his voice or uses sharp invective. He expresses anger by growing silent. When the Army hierarchy seemed to brush off press reports of poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital last winter, Gates grew "very, very quiet," says an aide who wished to remain anonymous discussing his boss's moods. The secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey, was forced to resign within two weeks.
Gates is an old cold warrior—he joined the CIA in 1966. He is a believer in containment, in waiting out the adversary with vigilance and deterring him with the threat of force. He wants to build a sustainable long-term policy in Iraq that is agreeable to Democrats and Republicans alike—slowly drawing down troops but maintaining a long-term presence. He also believes any policy must have support on Capitol Hill. It was little noticed at the time, but at his confirmation hearings earlier this year, he said that he did not think the president had the authority to go to war against Iran using previous congressional resolutions.
Gates admires Gen. George C. Marshall, the taciturn, self-effacing (but steely) Army chief of staff in World War II and later secretary of State and secretary of Defense in the early cold war. Lately Gates has been telling his friends and colleagues to read "Partners in Command," about Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. Gates was a 27-year career civil servant, the only entry-level CIA employee ever to become director of Central Intelligence. But he has no Potomac fever: he has been known to carry a pebble in his pocket from his family home in the state of Washington, a reminder of where he will go when his last tour in the capital is over. Gates, 64, scoffed at a recent article in The Washington Times, a conservative publication, speculating that he was maneuvering to stay on as Defense secretary in a Democratic administration. When he was appointed SecDef a year ago, a sympathetic friend gave him a clock showing exactly how many days remained to the next Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2009. Gates carries the clock wherever he goes.