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Changing the guard

Politics | As Rumsfeld resigns at Defense, the Senate sizes up nominee Robert Gates

Issue: "GOP downfall," Nov. 18, 2006

The morning after last week's electoral thrashing, President Bush managed to snatch one political victory from the jaws of defeat. Even his staunchest critics praised him for announcing Nov. 8 his decision to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"I commend the White House for acting with alacrity," said Jeff Record, a professor at the Air Force Air War College. Record, author of Dark Victory: America's Second War Against Iraq, a 2004 book critical of the administration and the war, praised Bush "for understanding the election for what it is, principally a rebuke for his Iraq war policy."

While in office, Rumsfeld enjoyed some support within the military. "I will say that at the action officer level, Secretary Rumsfeld was well liked in general," said Army Major David S. Johnston. "There was little question regarding the resolve and the tenacity of his leadership."

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But even before American tanks rolled into Baghdad in April 2003, Rumsfeld had his critics. Many military insiders described him as arrogant, dismissive of military opinion, and unwilling to cooperate or compromise, either with Congress or commanders in the field. Then as apparent U.S. victory over Saddam's conventional armies gave way to the current bloody battle against terrorist-insurgents, Rumsfeld became a lightning rod for widespread dissatisfaction with the war.

To replace him, Bush chose the un-Rumsfeld: Robert Gates, 63, who served as deputy national security advisor and CIA director under Bush's father and is almost universally considered a prime pick. A low-key, congenial pragmatist who earned his chops as a CIA analyst and not as a politician, Gates has served under six presidents from both parties and is a current member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission now reviewing policy in Iraq.

"He's very much of the realpolitik school, a stalwart of George H.W. Bush," said Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow specializing in intelligence and Middle Eastern issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "I'm glad that somebody with an intelligence background is coming in. A lot of failures in Iraq have been strategic and intelligence failures rather than battleground failures."

Gates, who holds a doctorate in Russian history from Georgetown University, joined the CIA in 1966, then served on the National Security Council staff under Gerald Ford. In 1981, he returned to the CIA, worked his way up to No. 2 man under then-director William Casey, and was credited with improving the quality of intelligence analysis. He also earned a reputation as a straight shooter, not one to tell a president what he wanted to hear.

For example, as Reagan nursed plans to aid the Nicaraguan Contras, Gates warned the president that the Contras enjoyed little citizen support. In 1987, Reagan nominated him to head the CIA. But Gates withdrew his own nomination when questions arose about his role in the Iran-Contra affair. Many at the time considered Gates a victim of circumstance. "The same kinds of questions would have been raised if St. Peter had been working in the CIA during the past two years" and had been nominated, one Democratic senator said at the time.

As the nation's head spy from 1991 to 1993, Gates presided over the post-Cold War retooling of U.S. intelligence. His first speech as CIA director now seems prescient: "History is not over," he said. "It simply has been frozen and now is thawing with a vengeance Americans ignore at their peril." It is perhaps ironic that Gates at the time identified and pledged to address American weaknesses that would later lead to the messy war that he is now called to mop up: the sub-par quality of national intelligence estimates, the handling of "politicized intelligence," and the use of human intelligence-gathering to assist in controlling weapons proliferation.

Former senator Sam Nunn, whose fiery exchanges with Gates during his 1987 confirmation hearings led to Gates' withdrawal, issued a statement praising Gates' ability to forge bipartisan solutions. The new defense secretary "has a well-deserved reputation on both sides of the aisle for competency and integrity," Nunn said. Still, all may not be rosy on Capitol Hill: In November 1991, 31 Senate Democrats voted against Gates' second CIA nomination. Among them were Sens. John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Joseph Biden, all harsh critics of the current war in Iraq.

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