Gates's Opportunity at Defense


Nov 17, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in on November 17, 2006.

Robert Gates, nominated by President Bush to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, will not have much time in office but he will have opportunity.

Gates comes to the job without much baggage, either of ideology or policy. He didn't campaign for the job — indeed, he turned down the position of director of national intelligence when it was offered — so he has some independence. And he comes to office when desperation might make for a serious debate about policy toward Iraq.

Gates was the committed Cold Warrior who also helped manage the end of the Cold War (disclosure: We have been colleagues and friends since working together on the Carter White House staff). His approach to the world is more the practical realpolitik of the first President Bush than the neo-conservatism that has held sway under the current president.

In a 26-year career as an intelligence professional, Gates spent almost nine years on the National Security Council, serving four presidents of both major political parties. He has not managed anything on the scale of the Pentagon, but then neither has anyone else.

As deputy CIA director for intelligence, Gates engineered what still is sometimes called the "Gatesian revolution,"drawing on his White House experience to induce intelligence analysts to be more aggressive in marketing their wares to policy officials. This earned him criticism, unfair in my view, for "politicizing" intelligence. As deputy and as director of central intelligence, he was the professional's professional, strategic in view and careful in detail.

Iraq will surely define Gates's tenure. There, the tempting analogy is to Clark Clifford's role as secretary of defense in persuading another Texan, Lyndon Johnson, that winding down the war in Vietnam was not a breach of Texas honor. Clifford described his task as that of the Scarlet Pimpernel, organizing a quiet conspiracy in the national interest.

This time around, the choices are at least as unappealing as they were during the war in Vietnam, but Gates will not lack for co-conspirators. James Baker and the Iraq Study Group provide one kind of cover for a change in policy. And while many prominent Democrats have argued for a timetable for Americas withdrawal, they will not want to look soft on national security.

In these circumstances, there ought to be room for a package — a timetable but perhaps one with some flexibility — and perhaps one more push for more stability, including even some short-term increase in U.S. forces.

Beyond Iraq, Gates's time will be short. Rumsfeld should be remembered, but will not be, for aiming at a real transformation of U.S. military capability, against the opposition of almost all of the Pentagon (and much of Capitol Hill to boot). His vision — a smaller, quicker and more lethal military — produced quick victory in the conventional phase of the Iraq war but left the United States with too few troops poorly suited to the task of occupation, let alone nation-building.

Gates' opportunity will be to redirect the transformation, not for major conventional conflicts but for the shadow wars America is likely to face. He could build on the words of recent Pentagon statements to strengthen America's counterinsurgency forces, its special operators, its advisors and policing capacity. All those capacities that have been in short supply in Iraq. A first test will come as the Army brass argues for a larger Army.

With a civilian, Gates, running the Pentagon and a military man, Gen. Michael Hayden, running the CIA, there ought to be an opportunity to bring together the parallel universes of civilian and defense intelligence.

As the capabilities of "national" intelligence collection systems, like the National Security Agency, have improved they have become increasingly important to warfighters for tactical purposes, and thus the distinction between "strategic"and "tactical" intelligence has blurred. Consequently, intelligence agencies and the Pentagon share assets and compete over whose needs are more important.

The competition risks duplication, as the military seeks intelligence systems it can count on that are integral to operational units. Here, too, Gates will not have much time, but he will have the opportunity to lay the cornerstone for the major element of reshaping American intelligence.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He was vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the first Clinton administration, and his Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information was published in 2001 by Cambridge University Press.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.