WASHINGTON -- A leading arms industry lobbyist and former senior Pentagon official was told Wednesday that Donald Rumsfeld was resigning as secretary of defense, to be replaced by Robert Gates, president of Texas A&M University."You have to be kidding!" exclaimed the lobbyist.
It was not Rumsfeld leaving that caused the surprise. Rumsfeld was at odds with Congress, the State Department and the uniformed military. It had been expected that he would be gone sooner or later -- probably soon after the midterm elections, no matter how they turned out.
The surprise was over Rumsfeld's successor. "Not Bob Gates!" said the lobbyist. It had been widely expected that Rumsfeld would be replaced by a major industrial executive. Gates, a former career employee at the CIA who rose to the top of the agency, has no experience with the defense establishment.
He has no known views on Iraq, and consequently there is no way of knowing how he might depart from current policies in Iraq under Rumsfeld. He was a deputy in the first President Bush's administration (at the National Security Council) of Gen. Brent Scowcroft. While Gates remains close to Scowcroft (as he is to George H.W. Bush), that does not mean Gates shares Scowcroft's disapproval of the Iraqi intervention. Indeed, Gates is considered a cool, non-ideological analyst.
That makes Gates an unusual choice, considering that he is being proposed for a managerial post of great difficulty and great complexity. His intelligence career was as an analyst, not an operative. And a low-key, low-profile analyst he was.
Being unobtrusive in the nature of a CIA "spook" does not mean, however, that Gates is noncontroversial. On the contrary, his entire career has been marked with conflict.
Joining the CIA in 1966 out of Indiana University, Gates fit in with liberal careerists at the agency and even marched in protest of U.S. intervention in Cambodia under President Richard Nixon.
As he progressed up the line of promotions at the CIA, Gates became known as a purist attempting to keep the intelligence free of tampering executive branch officials. In particular, he bridled at efforts by two secretaries of state -- George Shultz and James Baker -- to sanitize intelligence in the interest of protecting Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Gates was publicly rebuked by Shultz and Baker.
President Ronald Reagan nominated Gates to head the CIA in 1987, but the nomination was withdrawn. It had become clear that the Democratic-controlled Congress would not confirm Gates because of alleged connections with the Iran-contra scandal.
The first President Bush named Gates to the CIA post in 1991, and this time he was confirmed after a fierce struggle with Democrats in the Senate. He did not surface with his own views during four years at the agency, and Gates was not a popular figure there.It has been reported that the current President Bush secretly asked Gates to take the new director of national intelligence post in 2005 but that he declined on grounds that he did not want to leave Texas A&M to return to Washington.
Since then, Gates has joined the "Iraq Study Group," co-chaired by Baker, that may set the model for a new Iraq policy. That prompts speculation that Baker suggested Gates' selection for the Pentagon post.
But the selection raises questions:
Will Gates clean out Rumsfeld's civilian officials at the Pentagon? If so, where will the new officials come from?
What will Gates do to mend the broken fences between the secretary's office and the angry uniformed officers?
What will Gates do to restore relations between the Pentagon and Capitol Hill?
The biggest question remains what he will do about Iraq, and probing his views promises a potentially stormy fight over Senate confirmation.