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The Defense Secretary We Had

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By David Ignatius
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Senior military officers referred to it as "the 7,000-mile screwdriver." That was their way of describing Donald Rumsfeld's penchant for micromanaging aspects of the Iraq war that interested him. And it's one reason the military has to be happy that Rumsfeld is leaving -- even happier, maybe, than Democrats, who have claimed an early scalp for their election victory.

To the end, even when Rumsfeld must have known that his time in the job was short, he wouldn't give up that option to meddle with his field commanders. When Marine Gen. James Jones, the retiring NATO commander, went to see Rumsfeld a few weeks ago to talk about becoming commander of Centcom, he asked whether the defense secretary intended to continue his direct line of communication with the theater commander, Gen. George Casey, sometimes bypassing Centcom. When Rumsfeld wouldn't rule out such contacts, Jones began to doubt the Centcom job would work. And when Rumsfeld said he didn't foresee significant changes in Iraq strategy, Jones withdrew his name from consideration.

Changes in Iraq are coming, and Rumsfeld's departure is, to paraphrase the prayer book, one outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual process. Another is the choice as his successor of Robert Gates, a very different sort of figure from Don Rumsfeld in a number of ways.

The Bush administration in recent weeks has -- very much in secret -- begun to ask itself the tough questions: Is the Iraq strategy working? Can we achieve our goals with the tools we have? If not, how do we adjust them so that they fit? One top-level policymaker tried to explain the mood a few days ago by quoting the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want."

Rumsfeld long ago became the symbol for a war he began to doubt at least three years ago when he wrote his famous memo predicting that Iraq would be a "long, hard slog." That illustrated the best of Rumsfeld's intellectual style: He asked whether U.S. tactics were creating new terrorists faster than we were killing the existing ones and mused: "Are the changes we have and are making too modest and incremental? My impression is that we have not yet made truly bold moves, although we have made many sensible, logical moves in the right direction, but are they enough?"

Rumsfeld showed a willingness to question received wisdom, a penchant for challenging the pet projects of the military, such as the Army's plan for a monster artillery piece, inaptly named the Crusader, which would be difficult to move quickly to any modern battlefield. Rumsfeld was convinced that the Army needed to became more mobile, agile and expeditionary. Some of his ideas about transformation were accepted, but deep down, the Army's senior generals were convinced that his policies would break their branch of the service. The biggest smiles at the Pentagon yesterday were probably in the corridors inhabited by Army officers.

Oddly enough, it was the generals who helped keep Rumsfeld in his job. The White House had decided in the spring that it was time to make a change at the Pentagon, and officials were steeling themselves to break the news to Rumsfeld when the "generals' revolt" erupted on newspaper op-ed pages, with former officers lining up to denounce their ex-boss. The White House decided it couldn't appear to bow to pressure and retreated.

Rumsfeld's gift was his brilliance and intellectual toughness. He kept his head up even as the war in Iraq went from bad to awful. In that, he was a harder man even than one of his predecessors, Robert McNamara, who in his final year running the Vietnam War began to crack privately under the pressure. Rumsfeld embodied an old injunction: Never let them see you sweat.

But the downside with Rumsfeld was so great that few people are likely to remember the upside. He came to symbolize not simply the failure of the Iraq war but also the arrogance and lack of accountability. He had a knack for dropping phrases that came to symbolize what was wrong: "You go to war with the Army you have" and "Back off."

Robert Gates will bring to the job the attentive style of a listener. He rose at the CIA in the 1980s by making himself indispensable to his boss, William Casey. He was the brightest Soviet analyst in the shop, so Casey soon appointed him deputy director overseeing his fellow analysts. I once waded through Gates's graduate dissertation for his doctorate in Soviet studies at Georgetown. It was a work of solid, earnest scholarship -- good, but not flashy. Rumsfeld might have described it as a long, hard slog. But it illustrates Gates's best qualities: his intellectual seriousness, his professionalism, his lack of "side," as the British say of good civil servants.

Gates represents the return of Bush 41 people and ideas to the Bush 43 administration. The elder Bush rescued Gates after he was rejected as CIA director in 1987 because of his role in the Iran-contra scandal, bringing him to the National Security Council staff and then appointing him CIA director in 1991. Gates is not a turfy person -- he works well with others -- a quality that Rumsfeld often lacked.

The new secretary will bring something else to the table, and it may be a crucial factor in the months ahead. He came back into the Bush administration's spotlight because of his work as a member of the Iraq Study Group, headed by Bush 41's secretary of state, James A. Baker III, and former representative Lee Hamilton. Gates embodies the group's effort to find a bipartisan policy for Iraq. In that sense, he will go to the Pentagon with an invisible mission statement that can be summed up in two words: "exit strategy." He won't want to leave Iraq quickly or dangerously, but unlike Rumsfeld, he won't fight the problem.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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