What will Gates do in the job? It's hard to say. Since going to work at Texas A&M in 1999—first as dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service, then as the university's president—he hasn't made many statements about foreign or defense policy.
Still, three facts suggest that Gates might be something other than a caretaker in his tenure at the Pentagon.
First, Gates was tapped by President George W. Bush to be the national intelligence director when that job was created last year. Gates reportedly spent two weeks mulling over the offer, but he turned it down in part because he didn't want to go back to Washington, in part because he realized that the post would give him little authority to make policy or to hire and fire people. It's a fair inference that he wouldn't have taken the Pentagon job, either, without assurances that he'd have leeway to make big changes.
Second, Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group chaired by James Baker (Bush's father's closest friend and adviser). Some who have testified before the group say that, judging from some of his remarks, Gates (like nearly everyone on the panel) is well-aware that the administration's policy in Iraq is a disaster. At his press conference this morning, President Bush said that he'll meet with Baker's group early next week. With a member of the panel in charge of the Pentagon, any changes Baker recommends now have a much better chance of being adopted.
Third, Rumsfeld's ouster might—I emphasize might—signal a major setback for Vice President Dick Cheney. Rumsfeld and Cheney have been friends and allies since the mid-1970s, when they worked in the White House together under Nixon and Ford. Cheney brought Rumsfeld into the current administration. Especially during George W. Bush's first term, the two formed a pincer to cut off and beat back dissenting advice from Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Did Cheney, who knows how to count votes, accede to Rumsfeld's ouster? Or did Bush make the move over Vice's objections? Either way, Cheney's influence is far from finished—he still has his parallel National Security Council inside the White House—but it looks like his network across the river is about to be shut down. Will this also mean the end of the duo's outlook on the world and the policies that have resulted—the instinctive reliance on force, secrecy, and black-bag jobs? How Gates weighs in on this administration's intramural skirmishes may be one of the more intriguing questions of the remaining two years.