Gates's Glasnost at the Pentagon?

  • Share
  • Read Later
The Secretary of Defense's dining room is modest, with a couple of inlaid wooden cabinets along the walls, several flags with streamers from various military campaigns, and a bust of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in one corner. The table can seat only 24, which isn't very grand for the man who controls the most powerful military in the world.

But unlike his predecessor, the new boss at the Pentagon isn't into grandeur or ceremony, or so it seems. On Friday, in his first official press conference since taking over six weeks ago, Gates shunned the traditional Pentagon press briefing room, with its imposing stage, Pentagon seal, podium and klieg lights, opting instead for a casual get-together with the fourth estate at his dining room table. With some four dozen reporters crammed into the room, the session covered the gamut of defense issues; how the U.S. military will indeed chase and kill or capture Iranians if they threaten U.S. forces, as the Administration made clear earlier in the day; that it was the Pentagon's civilian leadership that was accountable for the strategy in Iraq; and why a Congressional resolution against the war may "embolden" the enemy.

But the 30-minute exchange had none of the combativeness of a Rumsfeldian question-and-answer session. He started the brief by apologizing to the press for holding it on a Friday afternoon; he had pledged to reporters last week that he would hold one once a week, and rather than go back on his word, he asked his staff to set it up. Gates didn't stop the presses with his comments, but he answered directly and, even, dare say, respectfully. There was one exception — Gates was unable to explain why the Pentagon misled reporters in the initial reports about an incident in Karbala, where the military initially said four soldiers had been killed on scene when in fact they had been captured by insurgents and killed later.

It's not only the media whom Gates is treating as adults. One senior officer said the top brass feel like they can now get a hearing for issues they never dared speak of; "It's like there's a substitute teacher in the classroom, people are coming out of the woodwork asking for stuff that they've bottled up." Gates himself acknowledged a change in atmosphere. "I would say what we have done, I hope, is create an environment in which the commanders feel open to requesting what they think they need, and then we will evaluate it here in the department to see what's available and how much of that request we can satisfy," he said.

And in terms of troops — they're getting it. U.S. forces have been extended in Afghanistan at the request of the senior commanders there, and Gates said today that the DOD is looking at ways to speed up the arrival of troops destined for Iraq. A senior military official said that behind the scenes the Pentagon is preparing in case the new Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus, asks for even more.

Still, one shouldn't confuse Gates's apparent humility with weakness. He bristled when a reporter suggested that he had given the military a "blank check," saying directly that there was no such thing. He also gave a lengthy explanation of his support of U.S. Army Gen. George Casey to be Chief of Staff of the Army — despite opposition from the likes of Republican Senator John McCain — topping it with the implicit gibe that Casey was the "first choice of the professional military." Gates, a former Sovietologist, might fit the same description that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko once made of newcomer Mikhail Gorbachev. He has a nice smile, but iron teeth.