A week before the election, House Majority Leader John Boehner told CNN, "Let's not blame what's happening in Iraq on Rumsfeld...the fact is, the generals on the ground are in charge." It was the latest in a long line of efforts to distance the Defense Secretary from the war launched and conducted under his watch.Nevertheless, there are indications that a change in SecDefs may trigger a shift in Iraq policy. As Stratfor's George Friedman notes, Rumsfeld's designated successor, Robert Gates, has "particular significance because he was a member of the Iraq Study Group (ISG). The ISG has been led by another member of the Bush 41 team, former Secretary of State James Baker. The current president created the ISG as a bipartisan group whose job was to come up with new Iraq policy options for the White House."
Before Rumsfeld's resignation, it had not been entirely clear what significance the ISG report would have. For the Democrats -- controlling at least one chamber of Congress, and lacking any consensus themselves as to what to do about Iraq -- it had been expected that the ISG report would provide at least some platform from which to work, particularly if Bush did not embrace the panel's recommendations. And there had, in fact, been some indications from Bush that he would listen to the group's recommendations, but not necessarily implement them. Given the results of the Nov. 7 elections, it also could be surmised that the commission's report would become an internal issue for the Republican Party as well, as it looked ahead to the 2008 presidential campaign. With consensus that something must change, and no consensus as to what must change, the ISG report would be treated as a life raft for both Democrats and Republicans seeking a new strategy in the war. The resulting pressure would be difficult to resist, even for Bush. If he simply ignored the recommendations, he could lose a large part of his Republican base in Congress.At this point, however, the question mark as to the president's response seems to have been erased, and the forthcoming ISG report soars in significance. For the administration, it would be politically unworkable to appoint a member of the panel as secretary of defense and then ignore the policies recommended.UPDATE 11:38 AM: Matthew Stannard at the San Francisco Chronicle was kind enough to quote me -- along with luminaries like Friedman, Tom Barnett, T.X. Hammes, Heritage's John Jay Carafano, and John Aqruilla -- for his story on some of the challenges that Gates will face. I'm flattered to be included in such company.UPDATE 11:40 AM: Wrong, wrong, says the Armchair Generalist. "Bob Gates' role is going to keep the rudder straight and to continue Cheney's directions on how to execute the war in Iraq and Afghanistan until Bush leaves office in January 2009. The only guarantee we have is kinder, gentler press briefings."
This is supposed to be interpreted as "see, I'm taking a trusted old friend of the family who talks to moderate Repubs like Brent Scowcraft, no more Big Bad Rumsfeld to scare us with his funny sayings about 'the Army you have'." Now Bush says he's ready to work with the Democratic-dominated Congress and work out a new bipartisan plan for Iraq. This means change for the better, right? Wrong.In reality, the FY07 budget is already locked into place, and discussions on the defense supplementals are well along. In about a month, the FY08 budget will be locked into place by the White House. That means for the last two years, there will be little if any change from the defense acquisition plans designed by and approved by Rumsfeld. The White House isn't going to change its tone about Iraq unless Congress withholds operations funds for troops, and that's not going to happen with this new Dem Congress. At best, I foresee continued troop deployments and OSD maintaining 150,000 plus troops through the summer, and maybe - maybe - a decrease in the fall IF things settle down. If not, the troops are staying there, in the very large, hardened, permanent military installations.There aren't going to be any key people leaving the Under Secretary or Assistant Secretary of Defense positions. This is a prediction, not a fact (yet). All of Rumsfeld's people are going to stay in place. All those responsible for the Iraq war have already left. The 2006 QDR already set the course, and the National Military Strategy is already out.So what do you guys think? Does Gates mean a new plan for Iraq -- and for the Pentagon? Or is he just a care-taker. Sound off.UPDATE 12:05 AM: Fred Kaplan calls Gates "professional, fastidious, and nonpartisan. If George W. Bush was looking for an utterly uncontroversial figure to calm nerves, settle bureaucratic hostilities, and re-establish credibility on Capitol Hill, he could have found no one more suitable than Robert Gates."Kaplan also notes that Gates turned down the job of national intelligence director "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."Greg Djerejian is high on Gates, too:
We will have a Secretary of Defense who displays pragmatism and humility, not recklessness and hubris. We will have a Secretary of Defense in favor of occasionally speaking to our enemies, not intimating mindlessly and unpersuasively that the war might be expanded to new theaters willy-nilly (see Gates' co-chairing an excellent CFR task force calling for dialogue with Iran back in '04). We will have a Secretary of Defense who would never play Secretary of State, needlessly alienating allies with talk of "Old Europe", or battering our reputation in the Middle East by using gratuitous phrases like the "so-called Occupied Territories". We will have a Secretary of Defense who will display a much more sophisticated understanding of the myriad challenges presented in Iraq and Afghanistan--not to mention the war on terror more generally (an increasingly empty phrase in need of a radical rethink, of which more soon). And, not least, we will have a Secretary of Defense who understands the import of the Geneva Conventions, of the advisability of treating detainees in our custody with respect and dignity, in accordance with what we used to call American values. In short, we will have a competent pragmatist armed with fresh strategic lens, not an arrogant well past his prime and beholden to the failed polices of the past.