Advice for Gates from an Ex-Defense Chief

William Cohen, a former defense secretary, takes a look at the general and specific management challenges Robert Gates will face as he succeeds Donald Rumsfeld at the head of the Pentagon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Robert Gates is known as a problem solver. And when he takes over as secretary of defense, he'll confront a multitude of problems, starting with the deteriorating situation in Iraq. His immediate challenge is taking control of the Pentagon itself. One Air Force general has said that Mr. Gates's first month would make or break his tenure as secretary.

Someone who knows better than most what he's up against is William Cohen, who served as defense secretary from 1997 to 2001. He joins us from New York. Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. WILLIAM COHEN (Former Secretary of Defense): Scott, it's a pleasure to be with you this morning.

SIMON: One point five million people are in active duty in the military. There are 20,000 people in that building itself, the Pentagon. Defense Department is spread all over the world, from Arlington to Afghanistan. How do you get control of it?

Mr. COHEN: Well, you have to have good people, to begin with. One of the most important positions that Secretary Gates will have will be his deputy secretary of defense. He has to take as large and strategic a view as possible and leave the mechanics of operating the building and such and, as you pointed out, stretching globally in terms of its operations to other good people.

SIMON: What does he have to worry about?

Mr. COHEN: First thing he has to do is to come to grips with the proposals pertaining to Iraq, Afghanistan, and to a less immediate extent North Korea. But he'll have to come to grips with other issues as well, but establishing a good relationship with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the other senior officers; that will be key to his success.

Establishing a good working relationship means not getting so close that everyone assumes you've been co-opted by them, and not being so distant that they feel that they are being disrespected and disengaged. So it's a balance that one has to maintain. And I think it's quite easily achievable.

SIMON: There seems to have been an increasingly open breach between the civilian leadership in the Pentagon in recent years and uniformed military. Is that perception valid, in your judgment? And secondly, what does a secretary of defense have to do to repair it, or does the secretary of defense say, look, we have civilian leadership in this country; you get along with me?

Mr. COHEN: I think there has - there's been an opened split, and no doubt it's cause by the situation we're in right now in Iraq. I think it's easily correctable as such. I think it's quite unprecedented to have a number of generals recently retired to be so openly critical, and I think that that has come about as a result of feeling that they were not adequately consulted or feeling somehow their views were not taken to account. It could be from a variety of reasons. But it really has been quite unusual, and I think that that can be repaired and needs to be repaired. So that you want to make sure that, again, you're in charge as secretary of defense and your views will prevail. But you want to take into account, as best you can, the considered judgment of those who have dedicated their lives to preparing for battle.

SIMON: Is there one or two things that Secretary Gates, that you would openly advise him to do to just establish credibility in that first month?

Mr. COHEN: My advice to him is to be as open as he possibly can, to meet with the press frequently, to be a forceful advocate for the military, the men and women who are serving us; to keep the lines of communication open to Capitol Hill; build those relationships, keep them in good repair, so that when times are tough, you have people who are willing to stand with you rather than to simply criticize decisions you've made.

So part of that is bringing them into the process as much as possible, bringing key members down, over to the Pentagon. Collectively, they have an opportunity to influence public opinion, and public opinion again becomes very important, especially when you're going to war or in a war. All of those will, I think, pay great dividends.

SIMON: William Cohen, former secretary of defense, head of the Cohen Group, and recent author of a fictional thriller that's set in the Pentagon called "Dragon Fire."

Mr. COHEN: A pleasure to be with you.

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