Keeping The Change At Defense

November 29th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Keeping The Change At Defense

Wall Street Journal
November 29, 2008
Pg. 8
Capital Journal
By Gerald F. Seib
At a military facility in Washington, two stately old U.S. Navy officers' houses sit side by side.
In one lives Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the other, just yards away, lives Defense Secretary Robert Gates, so close by that the nation's top civilian and uniformed defense officials sometimes have front-porch chats about the nation's security.
It looks as if those neighborly chats will continue; President-elect Barack Obama plans to keep Mr. Gates in his Pentagon post. The decision, likely to be announced next week, is widely seen as a stroke of bipartisanship, which it is. But more important, it strikes a blow for pragmatism -- the hallmark of both Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen -- and is an indication that the real transition in defense actually occurred back in 2006 and 2007, when those two men moved in.
By picking Mr. Gates, in short, Mr. Obama isn't deciding against change at the Pentagon, but rather buying into the change that already has occurred there.
To grasp the nature of that change, it's best to look at Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen as a tandem, men of similarly unruffled demeanor who have worked closely to change the tenor and the substance of defense strategy.
Mr. Gates, a Kansan by birth and an intelligence analyst by profession, has worked both sides of the partisan divide with skill. He was a protégé to a Democratic national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, during the Carter administration, when his star began rising. Then he was the nearly inseparable deputy to a Republican national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, during the first President Bush's time in office. He later became director of central intelligence, and it looked as if that would be the capstone of his career in government.
As a private citizen, he began lending his voice to foreign-policy ideas that were decidedly non-ideological and bipartisan. He teamed up with Mr. Brzezinski to lead a Council on Foreign Relations study in 2004 that pointedly said the American strategy of refusing to talk with Iran was harming American interests. Their report advocated selective engagement with Tehran. And he was enlisted as a member of the commission led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton that, at the request of Congress, was charged with rethinking U.S. strategy in Iraq in 2006.
Then, late that year, the phone call came from President George W. Bush. Republicans had just gotten drubbed in the midterm elections, declining American fortunes in Iraq were viewed as a principal reason, and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was seen as the embodiment of that failing Iraq strategy.
So Mr. Rumsfeld was pushed out and Mr. Gates was brought in, his principal attributes being proven competence and the fact that he wasn't named Donald Rumsfeld. That Mr. Gates wasn't enthusiastic about the strategy then being pursued in Iraq was seen as a political plus rather than a minus. No Senate Democrats voted against his appointment.
In sum, he became a symbol of change long before Mr. Obama made that word the focal point of his presidential campaign.
Just how much change became clear a few months later, when Mr. Gates argued against reappointing the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, to the traditional second two-year term. Gen. Pace had become too closely identified with the U.S. strategy in Iraq; his confirmation hearings would have been brutal.
So instead, Mr. Gates reached down and pulled up his own man, Adm. Mullen. He's a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, but otherwise an unconventional naval officer. A self-effacing California native, he's the son of a prominent Hollywood press agent, and has framed programs from Broadway shows adorning the halls of his home.
It's safe to say both Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen accepted the troop surge in Iraq more than championed it. Indeed, Adm. Mullen, while serving as the chief of naval operations, was initially skeptical about the surge. By the same token, it's also safe to say that neither would have embraced the Obama position on an Iraqi troop withdrawal a year ago, when the new candidate was calling for starting a drawdown right away.
Instead, for the past year and a half, the broader Gates-Mullen goal -- one largely achieved -- was to find an Iraq troop level that was large enough to succeed, but not so large that it would cause political support in Congress to crumble. Now the evolving circumstances in Iraq, where security has markedly improved and the government is calling for U.S. troops to be out by 2011 anyway, have made most earlier differences on Iraq troop withdrawals seem marginal.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen are in sync with the president-elect on other key issues. All three want an orderly drawdown in Iraq to make it easier to add troops in Afghanistan. All three worry about the strain both wars are having on the military, especially the Army. All three favor closing the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen aren't always in sync, of course. The defense secretary initially was more skeptical about the need for more troops in Afghanistan, but was swayed by Adm. Mullen, Pentagon officials say. Together, though, they represent something ideologues of left and right can agree they dislike: the rise of pragmatists in the new Obama world.

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