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The Decider's Choice

This column was written by Fred Barnes.

Rarely has the press gotten a story so wrong. Robert Gates, President Bush's choice to replace Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, is not the point man for a boarding party of former national security officials from the elder President Bush's administration taking over defense and foreign policy in his son's administration.

The media buzz about the realists of Bush 41, so cautious and practical, supplanting the idealists of Bush 43, whose grandiose, neoconservative thinking got us stuck in Iraq, is wrong.

President Bush — the current one — decided to hire Gates two days before the Nov. 7 election. He didn't consult his father. He didn't talk to James Baker, his father's secretary of state and now co-head of the Iraq Study Group, whose official advice on Iraq is expected in December. Nor did he tell Rumsfeld that he was lining up someone to take his job.

Before hiring him, Bush had to make sure Gates didn't think America's intervention in Iraq was a mistake and wasn't deeply skeptical of Bush's decision to make democracy promotion a fundamental theme of American foreign policy. With Gates, it came down to this: "The fundamental question was, was he Brent Scowcroft or not?" a Bush aide says.

In Bush 41, Scowcroft was the national security adviser, Gates his deputy. Scowcroft, a realist, is a sharp critic of both Bush's Iraq strategy and the democratic thrust of his entire foreign policy. And Scowcroft has gone public with his strong opposition in articles and interviews.

Gates was initially approached about the defense post in October by Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser. The outreach was "delicate," a Bush aide says, and kept secret. Gates had at least one supporter inside Bush's circle, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She, too, had worked for Scowcroft in the senior Bush's administration. She told the president that whenever she had sought to wean Scowcroft from a narrow realist position — such as his dismissal of Russian democratic leader Boris Yeltsin as a rube and his unyielding support for Mikhail Gorbachev — she turned to Gates for help.

Bush was first given a thick briefing book of articles by or about Gates, who was not an unknown quantity to him. Gates is president of Texas A&M University, the home of the elder Bush's presidential library. He and the senior Bush attended an A&M football game together several weeks ago, a fact that helped fuel the Bush 41 takeover theory.

In 2005, Gates, who was CIA chief from 1991 to 1993, was offered the newly created position as director of national intelligence. He declined, expressing doubt about the usefulness of the post and citing projects at Texas A&M that he needed to complete. Those, he told Bush officials, would take six to nine months.

Despite his father's close relationship with Gates — plus the senior Bush's dislike of Rumsfeld — Bush never had a substantive discussion with him about the possibility of installing Gates or anyone else in the Pentagon job. The elder Bush wasn't informed of the Gates nomination until the morning of its announcement, Nov. 8. The president personally called his father with the news.

The first thing Bush officials needed to find out from Gates was whether he had finished his college projects. He had. Then they questioned him about his views on national security. They were satisfied, but the president wanted to find out for himself.

Two days before the election, the president summoned Gates to his ranch near Waco, Texas. It was the first time they'd talked about the Pentagon position. Bush had houseguests for the weekend to celebrate his wife's 60th birthday and their 29th anniversary. He left the guests to spend nearly two hours questioning Gates in his private office at the ranch. It was only the two of them. No aides participated in the meeting.

The president wanted "clarity" on Gates' views, especially on Iraq and the pursuit of democracy. He asked if Gates shared the goal of victory in Iraq and would be determined to pursue it aggressively as defense chief. He asked if Gates agreed democracy should be the aim of American foreign policy and not merely the stability of pro-American regimes, notably in the Middle East. Bush also wanted to know Gates' "philosophy" of America's role in the world, an aide says, and his take on the pitfalls America faces. "The president got good vibes," according to the Bush official.

Bush didn't offer Gates the job immediately. But he'd already learned from his aides that Gates would take the post if it were offered. Bush called Gates some time after their meeting to offer him the job.

Pulling off the Gates nomination without Rumsfeld's knowledge was tricky. White House officials say the idea of replacing Rumsfeld grew, at least partly, out of the secretary's suggestion to the president on several occasions over the past year that "fresh eyes" might be needed in his job.

But Bush and Rumsfeld agreed a change at defense couldn't occur until an appropriate replacement was found. And for months no one was under consideration. Several names were mentioned in the media, including Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman and James Baker. But press speculation about them wasn't taken seriously at the White House.

Besides, the president gave every indication he intended to keep Rumsfeld. At a meeting with reporters in September, Bush said he backed Rumsfeld "100 percent," liked the fact that Rumsfeld and not the military brass ran the Pentagon, and enthusiastically endorsed Rumsfeld's reform of the military into a smaller, more mobile force.

It was only a few weeks after that Q-and-A session that Gates was initially contacted about succeeding Rumsfeld. Bush aides informed Rumsfeld of the Gates selection shortly before he was to confer with the president at the White House on Election Day.

The timing of Rumsfeld's departure has prompted complaints by congressional Republicans, who have argued that the GOP would have lost fewer seats had the defense secretary's resignation taken place a few months before the election.

Bush and his aides disagree. If Rumsfeld had been fired in the summer or early fall, that would have been seen as a purely political step designed to affect the outcome of the election. And Senate confirmation of a successor would have faced fierce opposition. If it had occurred a few weeks after the election, Bush officials insist, it would have been seen as an act of weakness following a Democratic triumph. Instead, it was carried out early on Election Day and announced the next morning.

In any case, the switch from Rumsfeld to Gates (assuming he's confirmed) doesn't represent a policy reversal. Nonetheless, the Washington community, led by the foreign policy establishment and the media, are desperate to believe it does.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
By Fred Barnes

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