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Gates meets the press, shows he's no Rumsfeld

No scoffing or lectures? Is this the right room for the news conference?

January 27, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — If there was any question that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would go to almost any length to demonstrate he was the anti-Rumsfeld, he dispelled it Friday.

In his first-ever Pentagon news conference, Gates' manner and method could not have been more different than those of his controversial predecessor -- starting with the room.

Donald H. Rumsfeld made the Pentagon briefing room so much his own, Gates has evidently decided he has no intention of using it. Instead, Gates met the media in his private dining room, seating reporters and himself around a large conference table.

And the answers he offered could not have been more dissimilar to Rumsfeld's.

Stylistically, Gates refrained from scoffing at reporters, from restating their questions on more favorable terms and from challenging the premises of inquiries. He avoided any metaphysical lectures or expositions on the electricity supply of North Korea. Instead, he took the questions as they came, working his way through 32 of them, quickly and concisely.

Substantively, there were some sharp differences. Indeed, Gates came close to blaming Rumsfeld for many of the problems in Iraq.

The new Defense chief offered strong words of support for the nomination of Gen. George W. Casey Jr. to become the next Army chief of staff and said Casey was not to blame for the problems of Iraq. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has criticized Casey's leadership of the war and said he would vote against the general's nomination. Asked if commanders should be held accountable for Iraq, Gates seemed -- almost -- to throw Rumsfeld under the bus.

"I think that one has to look at this in the context of the decisions made by the civilian superiors of officers and how the battlefield they face was shaped by those decisions," Gates said.

Rumsfeld always insisted in his news conferences that his commanders were free to ask for more forces. But military planners had said privately that Rumsfeld created an atmosphere where such requests were unwelcome. On Friday, Gates took pains to demonstrate that he was listening to his military commanders. Although he would not say whether he might send more than 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, he said military commanders could ask for more.

"What we have done, I hope, is create an environment in which the commanders feel open to requesting what they think they need," Gates said.

During a Senate hearing this week, a slight strategy difference seemed to emerge between Gates and the man he recommended to become the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus. Gates said on Jan. 12 that some of the additional forces on their way to Baghdad might end up not being needed. But Petraeus said Tuesday that he would not know if the strategy was working until all the forces were in place.

Gates did not completely back off Friday but stated emphatically that Petraeus would get the troops he wanted, and said the department was looking to get them to Baghdad sooner than spring. "As long as he feels he needs them," Gates said, "they're all going to flow."

Members of Congress often accused Rumsfeld of painting an overly rosy picture of the situation in Iraq. Here again, Gates pledged to be a different kind of defense secretary.

"My hope is to establish a record with the Hill going forward, regardless of what may have been the case in the past, where we have a reputation for candor and for saying -- calling things exactly as they are, for good or for bad," Gates said.

But like Rumsfeld, Gates could not avoid some trouble at his news conference. Gates took a swipe at the pending congressional resolutions opposing the troop increase, saying the movement "certainly emboldens the enemy and our adversaries."

That provoked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who frequently issued statements after Rumsfeld news conferences, to say that Gates' comment was "a desperate attempt by the administration to support a failed policy."

Just like old times.

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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