Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Gates files (I): Forget Rumsfeld’s rules, this sec def had his own way to roll

It struck me when reading the memoirs of Robert Gates that he effectively lists a bunch of rules for living and working in Washington that are pretty good, and perhaps more astute than the famous collection of rules compiled by Donald Rumsfeld, a less successful defense secretary. Here is my selection of his instructions, all ...

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Wikimedia

It struck me when reading the memoirs of Robert Gates that he effectively lists a bunch of rules for living and working in Washington that are pretty good, and perhaps more astute than the famous collection of rules compiled by Donald Rumsfeld, a less successful defense secretary. Here is my selection of his instructions, all of them offered in his hot new book:

Don't always show your hand: "I believed that I would maintain maximum leverage in the process ... if the other players did not know exactly what approach I supported." Likewise, go easy on television appearances. "When it comes to the media, often less is more, in the sense that if one appears infrequently, then people pay more attention when you do appear." But use your prominence to set an example internally. "If I could make time to try to help a single soldier, then by God so could everyone else in authority." Get real. "I'd been around long enough to know that when the head of a cabinet department says his organization has no problems, he is either lying or delusional." Not new, but well put: "This tactic of using high-level reviews to buy time was one I would use often as secretary." Know what you want out of a meeting before you go into it. "A meeting in the Situation Room was never just another gathering for me: outcomes were important, and I always had a strategy going in." Get on top of acquisition. If you don't, "Congress will fuck it up." You can't have a government without a budget. And that means, "For everyone in the executive branch except the president, the Office of Management and Budget is the villain." Understanding the Pentagon: "The Department of Defense is structured to plan and prepare for war but not to fight one." When you make a controversial decision, such as firing a top general, "be willing to meet face-to-face with those most affected." Don't be afraid to plunge into details. "‘Microknowledge' must not become micromanagement, but it sure helps keep people on their toes when they know that the secretary knows what the hell he's talking about." But don't place too much faith in strategy documents produced by the bureaucracy. "I don't recall ever reading the president's National Security Strategy when preparing to become secretary of defense. Nor did I read any of the previous National Defense Strategy documents when I became secretary. I never felt disadvantaged by not having read these scriptures." (Tom: That said, I do wonder whether such documents are perhaps useful as guidance to subordinate officials? But obviously not very much if the SecDef doesn't know or care what they say.) His "proven formula for deep thinking": a dinner of "martinis, steak and red wine."

It struck me when reading the memoirs of Robert Gates that he effectively lists a bunch of rules for living and working in Washington that are pretty good, and perhaps more astute than the famous collection of rules compiled by Donald Rumsfeld, a less successful defense secretary. Here is my selection of his instructions, all of them offered in his hot new book:

  • Don’t always show your hand: “I believed that I would maintain maximum leverage in the process … if the other players did not know exactly what approach I supported.”
  • Likewise, go easy on television appearances. “When it comes to the media, often less is more, in the sense that if one appears infrequently, then people pay more attention when you do appear.”
  • But use your prominence to set an example internally. “If I could make time to try to help a single soldier, then by God so could everyone else in authority.”
  • Get real. “I’d been around long enough to know that when the head of a cabinet department says his organization has no problems, he is either lying or delusional.”
  • Not new, but well put: “This tactic of using high-level reviews to buy time was one I would use often as secretary.”
  • Know what you want out of a meeting before you go into it. “A meeting in the Situation Room was never just another gathering for me: outcomes were important, and I always had a strategy going in.”
  • Get on top of acquisition. If you don’t, “Congress will fuck it up.”
  • You can’t have a government without a budget. And that means, “For everyone in the executive branch except the president, the Office of Management and Budget is the villain.”
  • Understanding the Pentagon: “The Department of Defense is structured to plan and prepare for war but not to fight one.”
  • When you make a controversial decision, such as firing a top general, “be willing to meet face-to-face with those most affected.”
  • Don’t be afraid to plunge into details. “‘Microknowledge’ must not become micromanagement, but it sure helps keep people on their toes when they know that the secretary knows what the hell he’s talking about.”
  • But don’t place too much faith in strategy documents produced by the bureaucracy. “I don’t recall ever reading the president’s National Security Strategy when preparing to become secretary of defense. Nor did I read any of the previous National Defense Strategy documents when I became secretary. I never felt disadvantaged by not having read these scriptures.” (Tom: That said, I do wonder whether such documents are perhaps useful as guidance to subordinate officials? But obviously not very much if the SecDef doesn’t know or care what they say.)
  • His “proven formula for deep thinking”: a dinner of “martinis, steak and red wine.”
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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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