The Starting Gates: Meet The New Boss

Robert Gates was sworn in as the new Defense Secretary today -- and David Martin has some thoughts on the changing of the guard at the Pentagon. -- Ed.

On the day Donald Rumsfeld's resignation was announced, I asked a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division what difference he thought it would make. He said, "Rumsfeld may be gone but Iraq's still there." Events on the ground in Iraq may be beyond the control of any American official. Robert Gates comes to the job without any ego invested in the previous strategy, which at least in pop psychology terms could make it easier from him to change horses. But Gates himself has said there are no new ideas on Iraq, and to begin with he will be getting his military advice from the same generals who advised Rumsfeld. So what difference can Gates really make?

Rumsfeld was a revolutionary; Gates is a super bureaucrat. Whether or not that produces changes on the battlefied, it will almost certainly be felt in the Pentagon. At his last Town Hall meeting with Pentagon employees, Rumsfeld was asked what advice he might have for Gates. The chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Gen. Pete Pace, whispered just loud enough to be heard, "Listen to the Chairman." Pace was joking, but one of the themes of Rumsfeld's tenure was the sceptical eye he cast on military advice. It wasn't that he ignored military advice; just that he never accepted it without a fight. If ever there was civilian control of the Pentagon, it was during the six years of Donald Rumsfeld. As soon as he became a lame duck, you could see the military start to throw off its chains. The Army chief of staff, who had been arguing for years in private that the active duty Army could not stand the pace of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan without more help from the Guard and Reserves, went public with his disagreement. The new Commandant of the Marine Corps suddenly became much more vocal about the need to expand the size of the Corps.

In his speech just after he was sworn in as the new Secretary of Defense, Gates said "to all the uniformed military here today, I value your professionalism and your experience. And I will rely on your clear-eyed advice in weeks and months ahead." It's hard to tell whether that was just a pro forma nod to the people who do the heavy lifting or whether it was a deliberate signal to the military that its advice will be heeded. It's even harder to tell whether it will make a difference in Iraq.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.