Knowing Gates

Fritz W. Ermarth shares his perspective of working for about two decades with Robert Gates—tapped to become secretary of defense. He suggests what Gates would have done, and could do, differently.

Fritz W. Ermarth-who worked closely with Robert Gates during his broad intelligence and policy career-gives his perspective of what Gates's leadership at the Pentagon could mean in terms of Iraq, intelligence gathering, and more. In his interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Ermarth points to what Gates would have done and could do differently on vital issues. Mr. Ermath served as chairman of the National Intelligence Council during the time Gates was director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

TNI: You have worked closely with Robert Gates.

FWE: Yes I have, off and on since 1973, until our ways parted in the early ‘90s when he left government and retired from the agency. So from the early ‘70s to the early '90s we worked pretty closely, on and off.

TNI: Please give use your perspective as to what this change of leadership at the Pentagon might mean in terms of U.S. strategy in Iraq and beyond.

FWE: Well, from everything the president has said, the strategy won't basically change. Now, I can't guarantee that sitting here in my study, but the execution you can count on will be very thoughtful and careful. That's the kind of person Gates is. But until the president signals it, I don't think you ought to look for a change of strategy.

TNI: Indeed, it seems from the president's statements that Gates was chosen not only for his expertise but also for a compliance with a "defeat is not an option" mentality in Iraq. How assertive do you think Gates would be in advocating a redirection of policy in Iraq, and do you think he's ideologically predisposed to a stay-the-course policy?

FWE: Well, you're picking loaded buzzwords for an interview like this. These have become bumper stickers. I think he appreciates, strategically, that for us to just bail out of there and leave it to the Iraqis alone to sort out the problem would be a disaster for all kinds of reasons-terrorism, regional stability and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. If you call that "stay the course," I'm sure he's going to support that. I strongly believe that he will examine the situation carefully, and if it calls for a change of tactics or even strategy, he won't hesitate to recommend that.

TNI: Do you think he has the personality traits to recommend such a change forcefully?

FWE: I don't have any doubt he does.

TNI: What could Gates's Pentagon leadership mean in terms of intelligence gathering at the Department of Defense and the DOD's cooperation with the national intelligence director?

FWE: Well, Gates's appointment is a huge plus in the intelligence department, because, to put it in one pithy sentence, it is really one of the key things that can make this National Intelligence Directorship and the reform of our community work. You could put God Almighty in charge of U.S. national intelligence, and he's got to have a good relationship with a secretary of defense who understands and supports intelligence. And that is Mr. Gates, par excellence. It is going to be a real plus for intelligence because it'll put to rest a lot of this nonsense about turf wars between the secretary of defense and the national intelligence director. There's just no way you can cut that baby in half, and he is the man in the Pentagon that could make that work.

TNI: Is there anything you would like to add on your perspective of Gates?

FWE: Yes indeed. In addition to the intelligence role that he will play, and a definite muting if not elimination of the tensions between the Pentagon and the national intelligence director, he brings two big things to the party. One, he understands big agencies, big programs, lots of people and lots of money-from being the director of central intelligence, being in the national-security business all these years and running a big university. If you've ever been in a university faculty or administration, you'd know what I mean. That is really demanding, and he's evidently done that very well.

But let me underscore a point I made earlier: This is an extremely thoughtful man. He's got his values, he's got his principles, you might even say he's got his ideology. He checks everything. He does not get pushed into decisions on impulse.

Frankly, if he'd have been secretary of defense in 2003, I guarantee you there'd have been a backup plan that would have avoided or certainly minimized the problems that we've had since.

TNI: You mentioned: "you might even say he's got his ideology." Is there something in his ideology or in his career experience that would now make him particularly suited to put into effect such a backup plan?

FWE: He's very realistic, and he's very committed to the exercise of American power in a thoughtful way, and I think for all those reasons he's an excellent choice.

TNI: What would you say his ideology is?

FWE: He's a national security professional. He comes from a camp with which I personally identify. He understands strategic realities such that he'll know we can't back out of the situation we have in Iraq, but we can't stay in it either without behaving very deftly and getting as much support as we can.