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Did Gates diss Rumsfeld?

It’s the obligation of each U.S. secretary of defense to make a speech when the portrait of his predecessor is unveiled in the halls of the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s speech Friday, delivered while standing next to former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was full of not-so-subtle indications about how Gates views Rumsfeld’s stewardship of the ...

Defense Department
Defense Department
Defense Department

It’s the obligation of each U.S. secretary of defense to make a speech when the portrait of his predecessor is unveiled in the halls of the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘s speech Friday, delivered while standing next to former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was full of not-so-subtle indications about how Gates views Rumsfeld’s stewardship of the Defense Department.

Gates hardly mentioned at all the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Rumsfeld planned and executed and that took up the vast majority of his time and attention until Gates was brought in to fix them. Gates also made several references to Rumsfeld’s famously combative personality, while trying to speak favorably about his predecessor’s efforts to modernize the military.

After briefly mentioning "the rapid removal of two odious regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq" when talking about the aftermath of 9/11, Gates only referred to the wars in Afghanistan one more time, giving Rumsfeld guarded praise for making the military more expeditionary in nature.

Even in that reference, Gates was touting the success of the surge in Iraq that took place only after Rumsfeld resigned in November 2006.

"Without these institutional changes set in motion by Secretary Rumsfeld, we would not have been able to surge five army brigades into Iraq on short notice, or have the quality and quantity of UAVs that have made such a difference on the battlefield," he said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles.

Rumsfeld reportedly opposed the surge.

The speech included no mention of the handling of the first four years of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Nor did Gates note that Rumsfeld’s drive to modernize the military was based on using technology rather than more people, a policy Gates has in many ways reversed by growing the ground force by tens of thousands of soldiers and marines.

Gates did praise the Navy’s Fleet Response Plan, which was updated under Rumsfeld, the building up of the Special Operations forces, and Rumsfeld’s efforts to update the organizational structure of U.S. forces in Germany, Korea, and Japan.

Gates also praised the front office staff that Rumsfeld left behind in his personal office. Those staffers might remember what Gates referred to as Rumsfeld’s "own unique and bracing style of personal management," which including dropping "snowflakes" all over the Pentagon. Snowflakes were the often very short memos or questions Rumsfeld would send down from up on high, landing on people’s desks all day long.

"Self described as ‘genetically impatient,’ he did not brook much nonsense or suffer fools gladly," Gates said, referring to Rumsfeld’s treatment of the briefers who faced him each day.

But Gates revealed that there was a way to ensure Rumsfeld would be nicer: bring his wife Joyce along.

"I’m told that the secretary’s staff always looked forward to Joyce’s presence on trips as that assured a happier — and thus less demanding — boss."

UPDATE: Rumsfeld’s spokesman Keith Urbahn writes in to argue that Gate’s comments were completely supportive and praising of Rumsfeld.

"Secretary Gates’ remarks were unfailingly courteous in tone and substance — in fact so much so that both SecDefs displayed more than a little emotion during the speech," he said, calling Gates’ remarks

"a plainly gracious and graceful tribute to the man who preceded him in office."

 

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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