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Master of Bureaucracy

Lessons from a Defense chief well-versed in the ways of Washington.

Few recall that Robert Gates, who served as secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama before retiring in 2011, got his start at the very lowest levels of the federal civil service. Right out of college, he joined the CIA and worked his way to the top of the hierarchy over the course of three decades.

He thus became a student and master of bureaucracy at every level, from the offices of mid-level managers working to preserve their programs to the “tank” where the Joint Chiefs of Staff hash out their differences to the White House situation room where powerful political players strut their stuff. He came to understand what gave people the power to stymie change, and he learned what was needed to wreak reform.  

Gates talked about operating amid the bureaucracies and power players during a forum following his acceptance of the Elliot L. Richardson Prize for Excellence in Public Administration from the National Academy of Public Administration in March. He spoke with longtime defense correspondent James Kitfield of National Journal

Gates joined the CIA in 1966 and became the first career officer in the agency’s history to rise from entry-level employee to director, a post he occupied from 1991 to 1993. Along the way, he also served as deputy national security adviser to President George H. W. Bush for nearly two years. After government, he found a home in academia, becoming president of Texas A&M University in 2002.

In January 2005, aides to the president asked Gates if he’d consider becoming the first director of the Office of National Intelligence. He had opposed the legislation that created the organization and what he believed was a toothless leadership role. Besides, Gates was fully occupied leading change at Texas A&M and was turned off by the ways of Washington. So he declined. But when National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley called again in October 2006 and said the president would like Gates to become secretary of Defense, “there was no wrestling. I said, ‘Steve, we’ve got kids dying in two wars. If the president thinks I can help, I’ll do it.’ ”

Gates had been away from Washington for a long time. Still, it was clear to him the civilian-military relationship was in need of repair. “I’m a big believer in symbols,” he said. So “the first thing I did, and one of the smartest things I ever did, was when I walked into the Pentagon as the brand-new secretary in the middle of these two wars, I walked in completely alone”—no assistant, nobody. He was delivering a message: “I’ll do what’s necessary to make changes, but I’m going to begin by a manifestation of confidence in all of you.” Gates would meet the Joint Chiefs in their tank, instead of in his office; he would travel to see combatant commanders at their headquarters, paying them the respect. “I wanted them to be a part of every single decision I made,” he said.

“Most of the people you work with have tenure,” Gates added. “They were there before you got there, and they’ll be there after you leave. And if you really want to change something, you’d better make them your partners in the change.”

At the same time, Gates found it difficult to make the rigid, parochial defense bureaucracy meet his demands for rapid action to support the troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The Pentagon is an organization structured to plan for war, not to wage war,” he said. “Most programs are years in preparation, years in execution. So where do you go to find the kind of rapid response that gets things to the field quickly? I found that in every instance I had to go outside the bureaucracy and create something new—create a task force that would report directly to me. Partly it’s structural. Because so many organizations in the Pentagon have a say on any single program or issue, getting something through that bureaucracy is a huge challenge. So the words ‘Pentagon’ and ‘agility’ have never appeared in the same sentence, so far as I know, without a negative involved.”

Because no service wanted to carve money from ongoing programs to support some new initiative not under its direct control, Gates created “an express lane” to make sure priority warfighting programs were funded. Even so, it wasn’t easy. He cited the unmanned drone programs as an example, noting the Air Force, Defense undersecretary for intelligence, CIA and ODNI all had big “institutional equities” that had to be accommodated. He noted that in 2007 and 2008, the people in these slots all knew each other well, with a level of trust that was crucial “because every single one of us had to force it on our respective bureaucracies.”

Gates made it clear in 2008 that he did not want to continue in a new administration, but when Obama approached him after the election, duty called again. Now, with new colleagues joining the national security team, Gates pursued a strategy that’s practically unheard of among leading Washington players: self-effacement and modesty. In particular, he wanted to strike up a good relationship with Hillary Clinton, incoming secretary of State, believing it was she, not he, who should be speaking for the United States on the world stage. He invited her to lunch in his office before she was confirmed. He recalls: “I said,  ‘How you and I relate to each other will determine how the Department of State and the Department of Defense work together. Because if those people down the line know that you and I pick up the phone and talk to each other and that we trust each other, the general inclination of staffs to set their boss’ hair on fire because some other agency has done something, that incentive will go away.’ ” 

Kitfield noted Gates had a reputation for not talking in meetings. “That’s absolutely accurate,” Gates said. “Most people in this town just can’t hear enough of themselves. So my attitude was to let them talk. Let me figure out how I want to approach this.” Gates knew he could take his thoughts directly to Presidents Bush and Obama in private meetings, giving his voice more force than it would have in larger Situation Room debates.

The secretary added everyone knew “who’s got all the money, all the people, all the assets. And so why not be willing to be more in the background.” He would, for example, let military leaders command the microphone in meetings with the press. “With the military, particularly after I fired people, I didn’t have to worry about whether anybody thought I was in charge.” He had, of course, cashiered the Air Force secretary and chief of staff after a nuclear missile was inadvertently flown across the country, and also the secretary of the Army after the scandal about treatment of wounded warriors at Walter Reed Hospital surfaced in The Washington Post

With his cards held closely to his vest, Gates aimed in 2009 to get ahead of the Pentagon’s budget difficulties by canceling lagging weapons programs. He saw his predecessors’ approach of attacking two or three projects at a time hadn’t worked. So after many hush-hush meetings in the Pentagon, he unveiled a proposal to cancel or curtail 33 procurements—spreading the pain so widely that focused resistance couldn’t quickly emerge. Still, commenting wryly on the parochialism that prevents change, he recalled that Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., “had 15 people in the state of Montana working on the F-22 and was going to vote against capping. I called him and I said, ‘Jon, I will hire those 15 people. It will save the American taxpayers billions for me to put those 15 people on the payroll.’ ”  

Gates said, “What has intrigued me is that the Congress lives in parallel universes. There is the fiscal restraint responsibility universe, which in general terms everybody signs up to, and then there’s the specific universe, what’s going to get cut in my state or my district. And they’re against all that. But if you can’t close any bases, if you can’t end anything in any state, then where are you actually going to cut the defense budget?”

During his introduction, Kitfield called Gates the “most consequential” Defense secretary of modern times, “in a good way.” But as the secretary reflected on his last job in Washington, he observed that there had not been time enough to develop a long-term U.S. national security strategy. Problems like piracy, the Russian invasion of Georgia, and threats from Libya, Korea and Iran kept eating up time. Besides, he said, different strategies were needed for disparate challenges. With both the secretaries of Defense and State “on the road all the time,” there simply weren’t the opportunities to reflect together on America’s role in the world over the coming decades.

Those of us observing this inspiring commentary were left hoping government is able to attract more such people with the fine tactical, and strategic, capabilities of a Robert Gates. 

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