Best Defense

Bradley Graham on Rumsfeld vs. Gates: a matter of style

I asked my old Washington Post colleague Brad Graham, whose new book on Donald Rumsfeld is just about out, to explain to me the difference between Rumsfeld and his successor, Robert Gates. Specifically, as some astute readers asked here the other day, why when Rumsfeld poses questions it is meddlesome micro-management, while when Gates does ...

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I asked my old Washington Post colleague Brad Graham, whose new book on Donald Rumsfeld is just about out, to explain to me the difference between Rumsfeld and his successor, Robert Gates. Specifically, as some astute readers asked here the other day, why when Rumsfeld poses questions it is meddlesome micro-management, while when Gates does it he is being Churchillian?

Here is Brad’s reply:

It does appear that Gates, who after succeeding Rumsfeld seemed bent on setting himself apart from his predecessor in approach and tone, has in some ways come to mirror him. The micromanaging and the overruling of the military chiefs are just a couple of examples. Indeed, as Ryan Henry, who worked under both Rumsfeld and Gates, told me when I was writing the biography, the longer Gates has served, the more he has come to understand why Rumsfeld was the way he was.

But in personal style, Gates has remained distinctly different from Rumsfeld, and this has been a key to his success. He has shown little of the arrogance, the dismissiveness, the discourtesy of his predecessor. He has managed to convey firmness and decisiveness without being overbearing and offensive. Most significantly, he has restored a measure of accountability without breeding deep resentment and making himself unpopular. While Rumsfeld in six years fired only one top official (Tom White), Gates in two-and-a-half years has already removed six (Harvey, Pace, Fallon, Wynn, Moseley and McKiernan). And yet Gates has none of the bullying, domineering image that Rumsfeld seemed to cultivate. Rather, he has demonstrated an ability to exercise strong civilian leadership with reason and just cause.

Significantly, too, Gates has brought a sense of balance to a Pentagon that Rumsfeld had kept in a swirl. His lack of flare and self-promotion have been a relief after the theatrics of his predecessor. In the Rumsfeld tradition, Gates has persisted in prodding the military to think outside its box. But he has taken a quieter approach and, at the same time, refocused the military transformation process. He talks less about what might be needed for future wars, placing more emphasis on current needs and on how to wage unconventional warfare better.

You didn’t ask, but the question of Rumsfeld versus McNamara also may be of interest, since McNamara is the only other Pentagon leader whose term rivals Rumsfeld’s for controversy. Both Rumsfeld and McNamara came to the Pentagon from the corporate world exhibiting arrogance and impatience, and both showed similar characteristics in office: keen analytical minds, insatiable appetites for data, predilections for new methods and approaches for problem solving. McNamara may have been more soullessly analytical, and Rumsfeld more intuitive, but both sought tighter civilian control of the military and ordered reappraisals of U.S. strategy. Both also brought with them contingents of civilian aides who shared their determination to shake things up and a propensity to clash with the Joint Chiefs. And both became embroiled in unpopular wars.

Where they differed most notably was in how they ultimately viewed their own tenures. Despite his public cheerleading for the Vietnam War, McNamara privately became dubious about its wisdom and effectiveness while still in office. In later years, he increasingly recognized that he had failed as defense secretary because of mistakes he and others had made in Vietnam. By contrast, Rumsfeld did not leave office doubting his handling of the Iraq War. He has acknowledged no major missteps or shown any remorse on the subject to date. Asked in my final interview with him last fall whether he harbored any regrets, Rumsfeld sounded tired of such queries. “Oh, that’s the favorite press question,” he quipped.”

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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