In the early months of 1989, the overriding foreign policy issue for the new George H.W. Bush administration was how to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev. Did the Soviet leader represent fundamental change, or was he merely a new face for the same old policies?
The administration was divided. James Baker, the secretary of state, wanted to test out Gorbachev. The anti-Gorbachev hawks were led by Robert M. Gates, the deputy national security adviser. Gates's principal ally was then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
Baker vs. Gates/Cheney: That alignment should serve as a warning to those who view Wednesday's appointment of Robert M. Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as representing the triumph of Bush the Father's administration over Bush the Son's. Any such analysis is far too simplistic. Gates's nomination unquestionably stands for one proposition: a long-awaited recognition that the administration's war in Iraq has been a disaster. But the broader interpretation of the appointment as representing a victory of Bush 41 over Bush 43 -- or of one school of thought over another -- breaks down when you look at Gates's background and the history of the 1980s and early '90s.
For one thing, that analysis depends on a selective view of the Bush 41 administration. Yes, it included Gates; then-national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, a determined opponent of the current Iraq war; and Baker, who is now head of a bipartisan group searching for a new Iraq policy. But Vice President Cheney was a charter member of the Bush 41 administration. So were Cheney's former aide Stephen Hadley, the current national security adviser, and Condoleezza Rice -- who have been among the principal architects of the war in Iraq.
Moreover, as that 1989 debate over Gorbachev illustrates, the Bush 41 foreign policy team was hardly united. Its members bickered about the Soviet Union, about China, about the Middle East. One of the few things it was in complete harmony on was the belief that American troops shouldn't go on to Baghdad at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. At the time, everyone thought that would be a bad idea, including Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of defense.
Well, then, does Wednesday's appointment of Gates represent a change of philosophy, the triumph of realism over neoconservatism? That doesn't quite work, either. Rumsfeld was never a neoconservative; he was an obstreperous contrarian, committed not to putting forward any particular philosophy but to aggressively challenging whatever ideas his bureaucratic opponents and critics put forward.
Gates is being characterized as a "realist," but his record is more complex than that, too. He was an ardent Cold War hawk who did not shrink from moral judgments. "The Soviet Union was an evil empire," Gates wrote in the concluding chapter of his 1996 memoir, "From the Shadows." Gates believed he was simply being skeptical when he insisted that Gorbachev was just another Soviet leader. But others in Washington saw this stand as ideological in nature. Former secretary of state George P. Shultz complained that Gates and the CIA had repeatedly tailored intelligence to fit the policy interests they favored. "You deal out intelligence as you deem appropriate," Shultz complained to Gates in one icy confrontation he recounted in his own memoir. "I feel an effort is made to manipulate me by the selection of materials you send my way."
On America's role in the world and the use of military force, it is hard to detect in Gates's record many far-reaching, principled differences with the present administration. He was deputy national security adviser when the Bush 41 administration dispatched American troops to Panama to overthrow Manuel Noriega. That intervention was, at the time, the largest U.S. military action since Vietnam, and in its essentials -- that is, the use of force to replace a dictator -- it was the closest single precedent one can find for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. On the defense budget, it was the Bush 41 administration that decided there should be no significant "peace dividend" after the Cold War.
So what does the appointment of Gates to succeed Rumsfeld really represent? The Panama example provides one guide: It succeeded, unlike the intervention in Iraq. Whatever their underlying philosophy, American leaders and officials are above all accountable for knowing what's going to work and what isn't; for understanding whether the United States has the ability -- militarily, politically, economically, diplomatically -- to accomplish something before setting out on a venture, particularly one that could cost many thousands of American lives.
Rumsfeld was the living personification of the error on Iraq, which America will be paying for over many years. But of course the ultimate responsibility lies with the president of the United States, the person who once said, "I'm the decider." Now, he's decided, without saying so, that his original judgment was wrong.
James Mann is author in residence at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and the author of "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet."