Gates Wins Trust, For Now, Of Congress, Military In Iraq Debate

Gates Wins Trust, For Now, Of Congress, Military In Iraq Debate
April 9th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Gates Wins Trust, For Now, Of Congress, Military In Iraq Debate

Gates Wins Trust, For Now, Of Congress, Military In Iraq Debate
April 8, 2007
By Ken Fireman and Tony Capaccio
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who cruised into the Pentagon on a wave of bipartisan support in December, is enjoying a Washington rarity: an extended political honeymoon in a job that often produces more enemies than friends.
Gates has won allies from the ranks of the U.S. military to the halls of Congress, while managing to persuade both of the camps in the furious debate over Iraq that he is one of them.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, who opposes the current expansion of U.S. forces, calls Gates "a voice of practicality and pragmatism" who will urge a fresh course if the plan fails. At the same time, retired Army General Jack Keane, who advised President George W. Bush on the buildup, says Gates backs it and will approve any request for more time or troops.
"I know for a fact that he is listening to the commanders in the field" such as Army General David Petraeus, who heads U.S. forces in Iraq, Keane says. "Everything General Petraeus is going to tee up, he'll get."
At some point, events in Iraq will likely force Gates to prove one side right and one wrong about where his sympathies are. And that may be the moment when he is sucked into the brutal Washington power scrum that he has thus far floated above.
For now, Gates has avoided committing himself in the debate that has raged throughout the Bush administration about how and when U.S. power should be used. In a March 27 speech, he positioned himself as a pragmatist who rejects the poles of "realism versus idealism, stability versus freedom and interests versus values" that have defined the debate.
"In the real world, I believe American foreign policy must be a blend of all these approaches, with different emphases in different places and at different times," he told a Washington conference on U.S.-Turkish relations.
This self-definition dovetails with a management style that eschews ideology in favor of problem-solving, respects differing views and deals with trouble quickly, according to people familiar with his approach.
They point to Gates's handling of the disclosure that soldiers and Marines recovering from battlefield wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington were living in decrepit out-patient housing and faced formidable obstacles in getting follow-up care.
On Feb. 20, two days after the Washington Post exposed the scandal, Gates walked into his morning staff meeting and said, ``I think we have a serious problem here,'' he recalled in a March 13 interview with the Pentagon's television channel. Within three days, he publicly condemned the situation as ``unacceptable,'' praised the Post for revealing it and set up a panel to investigate. By March 12, three senior officials connected with Walter Reed had lost their jobs.
``His decisions have been crisp and have had an impact in terms of producing and promoting accountability,'' says Levin, a Michigan Democrat.
``That's what you call leadership,'' Representative John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and former Marine, says of Gates's response.
Gates, 63, has had his setbacks, as when he failed to persuade Bush to close the U.S. prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has yet to leave his imprint on the Pentagon by reshaping Iraq policy, changing its senior management team or making a major weapons-procurement or budget decision.
``Gates is more of a manager than a strategic thinker,'' says Andrew Bacevich, a former Army colonel who now teaches history at Boston University. ``The manager is going to fix some of these relationships. But we need some creative thinking. I haven't seen it. I'll continue to look for it.''
Still, Bacevich and other Gates-watchers say, his actions so far indicate a willingness to face unpleasant facts, listen to a range of viewpoints and air disagreements in a civil manner. That is a contrast with Gates's predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, they say.
In particular, Gates has taken steps to repair relations with two important constituencies that Rumsfeld repeatedly alienated: the lawmakers who must fund the military's operations and the officers who must carry them out.
``He is more respectful of the career military and civilians, rather than just trying to overrule them,'' says Lawrence Korb, who served as an assistant defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan. ``It always amazed me that Don Rumsfeld, who had been a congressman, did not understand the role that Congress plays in formulating policy.''
Rumsfeld, 74, declined a request for comment, and Gates also declined to be interviewed for this story.
Gates has fostered stability by retaining Rumsfeld's inner circle, including Deputy Secretary Gordon England, Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Robert Wilkie and Special Assistant Robert Rangel, says Charles A. Stevenson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's international-studies school in Washington who has written a history of U.S. defense secretaries.
Stevenson and Korb say Gates has necessarily decided to focus on Iraq, letting others handle such issues as the declining state of combat readiness in many Army units and the growing cost of weapons systems.
``He's delegated a lot of management to England,'' Stevenson says. ``He had to do that because Iraq is his big challenge.''
Stevenson likens Gates to a predecessor, Melvin Laird, who served from 1969 to 1973. Both men were brought in for the single purpose of managing an unpopular and inconclusive war, he says. Unlike Laird, who persuaded President Richard Nixon to begin turning over the Vietnam conflict to South Vietnamese forces, Gates has yet to have an impact on war policy, Stevenson says.
Even as he delegates, Gates, a former director of central intelligence, has said he is looking for information beyond the inner circle. He eats lunch with senior enlisted personnel and meets frequently with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top rung of uniformed leaders, in their secure Pentagon meeting area known as ``the tank.''
Still, Gates has acknowledged he will be judged largely on Iraq. He took office amid the review that ended in Bush's decision to add 21,500 combat troops and wage the new offensive. During his Senate confirmation hearing in December, Gates's skeptical comments about the conflict raised hopes among war critics that he might persuade Bush to begin a withdrawal, but this didn't happen.
Levin says Gates's moment of maximum influence will arrive when it becomes clear whether the buildup has pacified Iraq, a point the secretary says should come by late summer. Levin says he hears in Gates's comments strong signals that he will advocate a reversal of course if the campaign hasn't succeeded.
For now, Gates can hold the military ``accountable for what they're doing'' in Iraq, Korb says. ``And if the surge --which he did not develop, which was developed before he came --doesn't work, let the American people, the Congress and the president know it's not working.''

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