Defense Secretary Robert Gates is, quite by choice, the anti-Rumsfeld—a man so low-key and consensus-oriented that it's hard to find his fingerprints on any particular policy. But no one can win internal battles the way Gates has been doing in Washington lately without leaving a few traces. To scant notice in recent weeks, Gates seems to have scored a significant victory in the Bush administration's internal fight over troop withdrawals from Iraq, and he has been perhaps the key player in quelling moves toward a military confrontation with Iran.
You may remember all the hullabaloo over Gen. David Petraeus's report on the Iraq "surge" a couple of weeks ago. By most media accounts, he came, he testified and then he conquered Capitol Hill. Not so. In the days after the testimony, Gates appears to have won a crucial debate behind the scenes with Petraeus and administration hard-liners who were pushing to keep U.S. deployments at current or at least "pre-surge" levels for the forseeable future. The proof is that he seems to be bringing the president onto his side (in his speech on the Petraeus report, Bush suggested that he wants the reductions to go deeper, as well).
In his testimony, Petraeus appeased the antiwar crowd somewhat by calling for the withdrawal of one combat brigade by December and then five more by July 2008, along with two Marine battalions. The Iraq War commander refused to say what would happen after that. Gates, however, quickly overrode Petraeus, indicating that drawdowns would continue at the same rate. The difference between the two of them reflects a little-publicized argument within the administration. The stakes, as laid out before the president, ran as follows: if the United States maintains troop levels at pre-surge levels or above into the next presidency—the possibility that Petraeus was leaving open—it will create enormous public pressure for Bush's successor to pull out quickly, especially if she is a Democrat. On the other hand, if the Bush administration can manage to reduce troop levels to a more sustainable level over the long term—just under 100,000 by the end of 2008—then the next president, Democrat or Republican, will be better able to continue that policy, thus securing Bush's legacy in the end. As Gates said publicly on Sept. 14, a few days after Petraeus's much-parsed testimony: "My hope is that when he does his assessment in March, General Petraeus will be able to say that he thinks that the pace of drawdowns can continue at the same rate in the second half of the year as in the first half of the year." The president later endorsed this view.
To ensure that this bipartisan, long-term approach continues, Gates is expected to announce soon that he is appointing John Hamre, a former deputy Defense secretary under Bill Clinton, as chairman of his Defense Policy Board, administration sources tell NEWSWEEK. Hamre, currently president of the prestigious Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a highly regarded technocrat who has been asked to help develop policies for transitioning to the next administration. This is a remarkable departure from Rumsfeld's board, an influential advisory body that during the crucial years from 2001 to 2003 was led by a fire-breathing neocon, Richard Perle.
So while Gates was seen in public as the Bush administration official who harshly criticized the Democrats' last effort to legislate withdrawal dates—a proposal by Virginia's Democrat Sen. James Webb to require that troops be given as much time at their home station as on deployments to the war front—he has also been working hard to placate the Dems. His biggest victory? By cleverly playing a bit of Washington jujitsu—embracing the administration's official position while quietly giving many of the withdrawal proponents a lot of what they want—Gates has succceeded in entirely eliminating the calendar the Dems wanted to impose on troop deployments. Even the Democratic presidential candidates are now talking vaguely about a long-term troop presence in Iraq extending well into the next presidency.
Gates is concerned not only about the terrible strains on the Army, but that Iraq is simply too politicized, his aides and advisers say. He wants to "lower the temperature," says a senior Defense Department official who would talk about conversations with the secretary only on condition of anonymity. "I've heard him speak to his desire to get the situation in Iraq to a point where it can achieve sufficient bipartisan support, both in order to get the mission done and to remove it as the central hot-button issue that is is right now," this official said.On the issue of Iran's nuclear program, Gates has been quietly counseling moderation, as well. Among other moves, Gates has carefully quashed moves by hard-liners to launch provocative operations inside Iran in response to Tehran's meddling in Iraq. "I think that the general view is we can manage this problem through better operations inside Iraq and on the border with Iran, that we can take care of the Iranian threat or deal with the Iranian threat inside the borders of Iraq—don't need to go across the border into Iran," he told "Fox News Sunday" on Sept. 16. According to sources in the defense-intelligence community who are familiar with the various contingency plans for attacking Iran, Gates has had an impact there, as well, killing the Air Force's "thousand points of light" air campaign, which would have involved an extensive target list. "He was a central element in making sure that plan died," said one of these sources. "What emerged in its place was a much more scaled-down contingency plan." But Gates has also taken the lead in stressing that the administration will continue to put diplomacy first.
The anti-Rumsfeld, indeed. Here's to quiet men.