What Robert Gates can achieve in the next two years.
Many thanks to White House counselor Daniel Bartlett for clarifying just what's wrong with President George W. Bush's foreign policy. Over the weekend, Bartlett was asked whether the nomination of Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense signaled the triumph of Bush's father and a broader return to pragmatism. Bartlett, who reportedly took part in the discussions about ousting Rumsfeld, replied:
It dumbs this whole thing down to say that this is the victory of the pragmatists over the ideologues. We are going to be practical in some respects, and ideological in others.
Quite an admission: If the opposite of "ideological" is "practical," that means whenever the Bush administration has been the former (nearly all the time on high-profile issues like Iraq and Iran), it has, ipso facto,not been the latter.
Bartlett's remark is reminiscent of—and, perhaps unwittingly, confirms—the comment that a Bush "senior adviser" made to journalist Ron Suskind two years ago that the days of the "reality-based community" were over. "We're an empire now," this ill-educated adviser boasted, "and when we act, we create our own reality."
This has been the problem all along—a willful neglect, even defiance, of reality. To be a visionary is one thing; to have visions is another.
Gates, by all accounts, falls into neither category—and that seems to be why Bush now wants him for the job. But what practical things can this pragmatist accomplish in the mere two years that he'll have at the helm of the Pentagon?
It's instructive to look back at Clark Clifford, the closest thing to a precedent. President Lyndon B. Johnson named Clifford defense secretary to replace Robert McNamara as the Vietnam War—"McNamara's war," many called it—was taking increasingly disastrous turns.
Clifford held the job for just eleven months, from March 1, 1968, to Jan. 20, 1969—less than half the time Gates will have. Though he was a pre-eminent member of the Washington establishment (an establishment that no longer exists), he was not a defense insider. (His law partner at the time, Paul Warnke, said that Clifford wouldn't have known how to drive to the Pentagon before LBJ asked him to run the place.)
Much of McNamara's legacy, he left untouched—nuclear strategy, NATO reforms, the application of "systems analysis" to decisions about weapons procurement. The Pentagon's day-to-day management, he left in the hands of the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Nitze.
But Clifford accomplished the one thing Johnson brought him there to do: He began the disengagement from Vietnam.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Robert Gates by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images.