Gates's posture of the tough-minded, crusading reformer whipping into shape an organization that supposedly was in sad shape when he took it over was in full bloom in a speech he gave a few days ago at the American Enterprise Institute. In remarkably self-serving language, Gates talked of how “in the course of doing everything I [note the first person singular] could to turn things around first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, from the early months I ran up against institutional obstacles in the Pentagon—cultural, procedural, ideological—to getting done what needed to get done.” He went on to talk about the requirement for “fundamentally reshaping the priorities of the Pentagon and the uniformed services and reforming the way they did business.” Four and a half years on the job, and the divide between the reformer with the whip and the whipped organization was as deep as ever. Everything good in the Pentagon was depicted as a result of what “I” accomplished; everything that was still bad in the department which he has been running was supposedly due to cultural, procedural, and ideological obstacles of the institution.
Awareness of the gap between reputation and reality matters not just to make an accurate historical judgment on one official. It is also partly a matter of fairness to those, such as David McKiernan, whose careers or reputations may have suffered as Gates strove to protect his own. Most important is that it is the reality of how departments are run and operate that counts, not whatever image the person at the top of it has managed to cultivate. What best serves the image is not necessarily what best serves the organizational mission and the national interest. Korb cites some very important matters for which this is true, such as defense spending. There are many others, including effects on morale and cohesion in an organization whose head never really joins the organization but instead lords over it.