Robert Gates Lauded As Breaker of Barriers

Robert Gates, right, and former president George H.W. Bush, a close associate, watch as the Corps of Cadets enter the stadium before a football game at Texas A& M University.
Robert Gates, right, and former president George H.W. Bush, a close associate, watch as the Corps of Cadets enter the stadium before a football game at Texas A& M University. (By David J. Phillip -- Associated Press)
By Ann Scott Tyson and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 9, 2006

Robert M. Gates, a veteran intelligence official whom President Bush nominated to become his new secretary of defense, is widely viewed as a consensus-builder who may break down barriers between civilian and military leaders -- as well as between the Pentagon and other agencies -- that grew legendary under Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Gates, 63, is a close associate of former president George H.W. Bush and was deputy national security adviser during the Persian Gulf War. He rose rapidly through CIA ranks as a Soviet expert with extensive White House experience to become director of central intelligence from 1991 to 1993. The only setback in his career came in 1987 when he withdrew as President Ronald Reagan's nominee to be CIA director because of his involvement in the Iran-contra affair. In all, Gates has served six presidents in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

A native Kansan with shrewd bureaucratic instincts, Gates lacks the top-down, take-no-prisoners managerial style that won Rumsfeld enemies and instead is more likely to set up task forces and forge agreements behind the scenes, associates said. While Rumsfeld issues flurries of directives and memos, nicknamed "snowflakes," in keeping with his business-executive past, Gates is a listener and leads with the inherent circumspection of an intelligence analyst, they said.

"Rumsfeld's a wrestler. Bob Gates likes to hike," said Richard Haver, a former senior official who has worked closely with both men. "Gates is not about to get on a mat with someone and pin him. With Rumsfeld, pinning is the name of the game."

At the Pentagon, senior military officers said that while Rumsfeld is perceived as arrogant and a fierce turf-battler, Gates is viewed as a far less combative and more conciliatory figure. "Gates has a track record of bipartisan support and being respected and accepted by . . . different parties," said a senior Army general, adding, "I think he'll be fine."

Gates could help ease the tensions that arose as Rumsfeld moved to impose greater civilian control on military services and operations, active and retired military officers said.

Military leaders "will find their voice in a way that they were never going to find it with Rumsfeld. My guess is that he'll listen," a retired four-star general said of Gates, whom he knows. Still, while Gates is expected to handle dissent with more finesse, "he won't be snowed or bamboozled" by senior military officers, said a former official who knows Gates well. "Gates will listen, but he will not always take their advice," he said.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Gates's boss as national security adviser in the Carter White House and today is one of the sharpest critics of the Iraq war, described the appointment yesterday as "the best . . . that President Bush has made in the course of his six years in office." Brzezinski described Gates as someone "whose judgment can be trusted and whose common sense is reassuring," and said that "this appointment may be marking the beginning of a major corrective in American policy towards the Middle East."

Former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), whose questioning of Gates in 1987 led to the withdrawal of his nomination to be CIA director, praised his "ability to work closely with Congress on a bipartisan basis" and said he "has a well-deserved reputation on both sides of the aisle for competency and integrity."

Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group, a congressionally mandated bipartisan commission headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). The group's review of the situation in Iraq over the past several weeks will give Gates momentum going into his new job, observers said. "Gates is going to have to move pretty fast. He doesn't have a lot of time to study this," said the retired four-star general.

Several associates stressed that Gates is a pragmatist and not an ideologue, and characterized him as being the same type of moderate Republican on foreign policy issues as Baker. A senior intelligence officer who has known Gates for 30 years described him as tough, brilliant and hard-working, but said Gates has sharp elbows for those who get in his way.

Gates has experience with Iraq as well as Afghanistan. He was deputy national security adviser during the 1991 Gulf War and helped oversee U.S.-sponsored operations in Afghanistan under Reagan in the 1980s.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company