The Plain Vanilla Revolutionary

In this photo released by the Defense Department, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, right, meets with troops at Kabul International Airport on Wednesday.
In this photo released by the Defense Department, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, right, meets with troops at Kabul International Airport on Wednesday. (By Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison Via Associated Press)
By David Ignatius
Sunday, September 21, 2008

KABUL -- Bob Gates looks uncomfortable in his pinstriped suit, standing in the hot sun outside the U.S. Embassy here before a gaggle of Afghan reporters. But he wants to send a message of contrition to a country that is angry about civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes. He announces later that the United States will adopt a new approach of compensating the victims of such accidents first and then investigating the details.

It's a small change in policy, but one that is characteristic of Gates's management style as secretary of defense. If the people of Afghanistan are upset, he wants to do something about it -- now! -- before their anger undermines the war effort. At the Pentagon, where log-rolling and bureaucratic inertia are a way of life, this insistence has been something of a revolution.

Gates has emerged this year as Washington's favorite Cabinet secretary. Both Democrats and Republicans talk of keeping him on in the next administration. Though a fierce proponent of American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been a leading skeptic of war with Iran and of any new Cold War with Russia. In a sharply polarized Washington, he has been a throwback to an earlier style of bipartisan national security policy.

Traveling with Gates last week to Iraq and Afghanistan, I had a chance to see how he operates. And the magic is that there's no magic. He's plain vanilla, a man who instinctively mistrusts flashy ideas and loud voices. His clipped facial expressions and tight body language convey the message: I don't need this job, and I won't put up with any obstacles to getting it done.

Photographers say it's hard to get a good picture of Gates. He doesn't smile or gesticulate for the camera. Where his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, was a walking photo opportunity, Gates is the gray man. One photographer says that he has to scan through dozens of images of Gates blinking, frowning or looking at his shoes before he finds a photo that's usable.

Gates is allergic to most forms of publicity. He hates the Sunday talk shows, which he regards as Washington insiders talking to each other. He hates town hall meetings, which aides say he views as stagecraft. He hates schmoozing with members of Congress (many of whose pork-barrel projects Gates would like to cut). And he hates the time-wasting bureaucracy of the Pentagon, in which strong ideas get neutered in the search for consensus.

Here's what he likes: a small staff (his own inner staff is fewer than a dozen, a fraction of the entourage that surrounds the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff); short deadlines (which don't allow people to round off the edges of policy in endless debate); people who get the job done (a good example are the assistants who pounded down bureaucratic obstacles at the Air Force and Navy to put more reconnaissance planes in the air over Iraq and Afghanistan).

Gates manages quietly but firmly, not by Rumsfeldian sound bites and "snowflake" memos but by insisting on accountability. When the Army secretary didn't respond quickly enough to the disrepair at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Air Force secretary and chief of staff didn't respond quickly enough to revelations that nuclear weapons had been flown around the country improperly, they were fired. Bang! That's a kind of discipline too rarely seen in Washington.

Gates has brought a sense of balance to a Pentagon made dizzy by Rumsfeld's machinations. Indeed, balance was the theme of a speech he delivered Friday in Britain. Taking a middle position between foreign policy "realists" and "interventionists," he argued that America must stop lurching "between a too-eager embrace of the use of military force and a deep-seated loathing of it." Crises shouldn't always evoke Munich and 1938, he said; neither should they trigger automatic analogies to August 1914.

"I have become quite modest with respect to grandiose pronouncements and forecasts about the future or our ability to discern it," Gates said. That wariness is a useful quality, especially for an administration that is trying to recover from an overabundance of self-confidence about its mission in the world.

Gates would be useful for a future president, too. But in his briefcase is a little clock that counts down the days, hours and minutes until Jan. 20, when he can leave a Washington he dislikes, for all the right reasons.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address

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