Since the entire blogging world is writing about the choice of Texas A&M president Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, I might as well weigh in, having just written 8,000 words about him in the cover story of the November issue of TEXAS MONTHLY. In my opinion, President Bush could not have made a better choice. Gates is the opposite of Donald Rumsfeld, a man whose decisions were predetermined by his neoconservative ideology. The most important thing to know about Gates is that he is a highly trained observer who has spent his whole life assessing complex and sometimes impenetable situations, from the Soviet Union during the Cold War to the culture at Texas A&M. He is the opposite of an ideologue–someone who reaches conclusions based on facts, not on belief.
The second most important thing about Gates is that he acts upon his conclusions. When he interviewed for the presidency of A&M, he told the regents, “I am an agent of change. If you don’t want change, you don’t want me.” Change includes personnel. Many of the administrators and top staff Gates inherited at A&M are gone. The example that I regard as the most telling is the food service. What university president cares about the food service? Gates dismissed the top five administrators and brought in a new director from Stanford. He recognized that one of the problems at Texas A&M is narrowness of thought, and he believed that by offering a greater variety of food, from sushi to soul food, he could help broaden students’ understanding. Gates broke up the old-boy network that was entrenched in the A&M administration. He brought in a new athletic director, a new admissions officer to develop a new admissions policy, a new chief financial officer. Executives who make these kinds of wholesale changes are usually feared, but Gates is revered at A&M, because his changes helped the unversity grow up.
The most significant thing that Gates did was to elevate the role of the faculty. Power at A&M traditionally resided in the administrative side of the university. Historically, the faculty had little voice in the decision-making. A&M didn’t even have a faculty senate until the eighties. Vice-presidents were far more important than deans in determining how money was allocated. Gates knew that this had to change and he knew how to change it. As in the Soviet Union, power could often be deduced by who was seated where at important events. At A&M graduation ceremonies, the vice-presidents sat on a stage in the front row of seats, the deans behind them, and the faculty on the floor. At a winter graduation early in Gates’ tour, the A&M community was startled to see the deans on the front row, the vice-presidents relegated to the rear, and the faculty elevated–literally–to the same level as the stage on a newly constructed platform. This happened around four years ago, and people at A&M are still talking about it, because the symbolic change presaged the real change. The deans run the academic side of the university today, not the vice-presidents. Gates established a system of governance that facilitates rather than obstructs A&M’s academic ambitions.
Gates wrote a memoir called From the Shadows. I read it from cover to cover, mainly because I was looking for clues to his personality, having found the task of writing a profile of a man who has made a career of not revealing himself to be a bit daunting. But I also love history–it was my major in college–and I found myself absorbed by the book, which amounts to a history of the Cold War from Gates’ perspective at the CIA. The book goes into great detail (some would say too great) about every important confrontation in the Cold War, some of which have been reduced to historical footnotes today, but his observations about people and politics and the internal workings of the CIA are fascinating. Early in the book, Gates dispels the notion of the CIA as a bureaucracy stocked with right-wing types. During the Viet Nam era, he writes, most of his fellow employees were against the war and even had anti-war (and in some cases, anti-Nixon) posters on their walls. Gates himself participated in an anti-war protest over the bombing of Cambodia. Gates told me that, while the book was favorably reviewed upon its publication in 1996, some critics felt he was too soft on the presidents he served under; as he put it, “They said I never met a president I didn’t like.” In fact, Gates disliked Nixon intensely and joined in the widely held view that Carter micromanaged to a fault. But he varies from the prevailing wisdom at the time that Carter’s human rights policy toward the Soviet Union was ineffective; indeed, he believes that it impugned the regime’s legitimacy and thus was a turning point in the Cold War.
One of the most important themes in the book–and something highly relevant to his impending appointment–is Gates’ hostility toward ideological approaches to life-and-death policy issues. The CIA was constantly under attack during the Cold War by those on the left who regarded its assessment of the Soviet threat and capabilities as too exaggerated and those on the right who regarded them as too understated. In particular, Gates had little use for the Reaganites who came into office convinced that the CIA had consistently underestimated the Soviets’ military capabilities and intentions. As Gates saw this confrontation, belief had blinded them to reality. This is not a mistake he will make.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that this is just another Bush croneyism appointment. Gates is very close to George Bush, all right–the first George Bush. I would be surprised if the elder Bush did not have a great deal to do Gates’ appointment. (There always was bad blood between Bush 41 and Rumsfeld.) He will serve Bush 43 well, if Bush will let him. Gates describes himself in the book as someone who would tell his bosses at the agency what they didn’t want to hear, sometimes to his detriment, and I have no doubt he will do the same at Defense. I do know this: The era of choosing generals for their willingness to parrot the White House line about Iraq is over. One of the biggest mistakes of the war was the subordination of war policy to political opportunism. Bob Gates will never be a party to that. Bush could not have made a better appointment.