In the 17 months of his tenure, some of this transition has been stylistic. One Pentagon source (who didn't want to be identified for fear of sounding like a suck-up) calls Gates "extraordinarily quick and extraordinarily even" and praises his "sense of humor and candor behind closed doors."
But the most important shift has been substantive. Donald Rumsfeld - along with the early President George W. Bush - set out an ambitious vision of military transformation. The Pentagon would use a period of relative international calm to make bold leaps in military capabilities so America would be unmatched in future wars.
That calm ended on Sept. 11, 2001, but the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were still generally seen as temporary distractions from this great transformational purpose.
Far from treating Iraq as a distraction, Gates has posed the question: Why not concentrate on winning the wars our soldiers are currently fighting?
In a series of groundbreaking speeches, Gates has argued that asymmetrical conflicts in the "long war" against "violent jihadist networks" will remain the likely face of battle for decades to come, that "procurement and training have to focus on that reality," and that shaping civilian attitudes in these conflicts will be just as important as winning battles.
There have been at least three practical outcomes of the nicely rhymed Gates Doctrine - "the war we are in â?¦ is the war we must win" - in Iraq and beyond.
First, Gates has pushed to deploy technologies immediately useful in low-intensity conflict, particularly unmanned aerial vehicles. "Three armed Predators over Sadr City," says my military contact, "have hammered anyone challenging our forces. They help account for the eagerness for a cease-fire."
Second, Gates is institutionalizing the teaching of counterinsurgency strategy. The old theory, says my contact, went: "If we could do the big stuff - major combat operations - we could take care of the little stuff, the asymmetrical stuff. But the little stuff turned out to be more prolonged and difficult."
So the Army's new manual on "Full Spectrum Operations" trains new officers to conduct simultaneous offensive, defensive and "stability operations" - things such as political reconciliation, providing basic services and promoting local government. "The human terrain," says my source, "is the decisive terrain, and Gates gets it."
Third, Gates argues that while American military power can be a prerequisite for
tability, winning asymmetrical wars requires other elements of American power. So he calls for "a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security - diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development."
The Gates Doctrine has helped right a listing Iraq war and has met opposition.
Getting the Air Force to deploy unmanned vehicles instead of concentrating on expensive, manned aircraft has been, Gates says, like "pulling teeth." Elements of the defense establishment, he charges, have been "preoccupied with future capabilities and procurement programs, wedded to lumbering peacetime process and procedures, stuck in bureaucratic low-gear."
Recently - almost seven years after Sept. 11, five years after the Iraq war began - Gates noted that portions of the military are still not on a "war footing."
With Americans engaged in a war, this scandal dwarfs any that Gates has faced. In confronting it, the "realist" has become genuinely transformational.
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