WASHINGTON -- During a 27-year career in government, Robert M. Gates earned a reputation for knowing exactly when and how to use the levers of power in Washington.
Those skills will be tested as never before if Gates, as expected, is confirmed soon as the next secretary of defense.
"He's got a honeymoon period, and he's going to have to make the most of it," said Amy Zegart, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in national security.
Gates, 63, is known as a consensus-builder and decisive leader, former colleagues say.
President Bush has summoned Gates, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, back to Washington to help chart a new military course in Iraq, a war that critics say the United States has already lost.
Democratic ferment to oust Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gates' strong bipartisan reputation virtually ensure swift Senate confirmation. This environment contrasts sharply with Gates' nomination as CIA director in 1987 and 1991, which featured bitter fights over the politicization of intelligence.
"I don't see obstacles" to Gates' confirmation, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island told reporters. He predicted that Gates is "going to make a conscious effort to reach across the aisle."
At tomorrow's confirmation hearing, senators are expected to press Gates to say whether the United States should set a deadline to withdraw from Iraq and whether Washington should seek assistance from Iraq's neighbors.
In written answers to questions from senators, Gates criticized the Pentagon's post-invasion planning and said he would keep an open mind about the way forward in Iraq.
"I might have done some things differently," he wrote, adding that he wants to improve the Pentagon's postwar planning capability.
He also said the U.S. should engage Iran and other countries.
On detainee treatment, he subtly echoed critics of Bush's aggressive interrogation policies. U.S treatment of detainees "may have a direct impact" on how captured U.S. soldiers are treated in the future, he said.
Gates joined the CIA as an entry-level analyst in 1966, and he did a two-year stint in the Air Force, starting in 1967. His skills were noticed early, winning him several assignments to coveted White House policy posts.
He served as a national security aide under Democratic and Republican presidents. In the administration of President George Bush, he was the top deputy to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, known for his pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state, worked for Gates as an adviser on Russia and Eastern Europe.
Gates became deputy CIA director in 1986, but his 1987 promotion to director was derailed by questions about his knowledge of the Iran-contra scandal.
Four years later, after months of debate over whether he was forthright when he told Congress he had limited knowledge of the Iran-contra deal, as well as charges that he politicized intelligence to overemphasize the Soviet threat, the Senate confirmed him as CIA director in 1991.
A deft bureaucratic infighter, Gates earned the trust of CIA co-workers, administration officials and members of Congress from both parties.
"We always as Democrats had an equal seat at the table, and he really tried to form a bipartisan consensus on very sensitive issues," said former Oklahoma Sen. David L. Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma and a friend of Gates'.
Gates was CIA director for only 14 months because he started at the end of George Bush's term. As a result, his tenure as director is largely remembered as incomplete. Some, like UCLA's Zegart, worry that he'll face similar constraints during the final two years of Bush's term.
"He has a very narrow window," said John Gannon, a former senior CIA official. "It's going to depend on what the administration's comprehensive approach is to this. If they really do go for diplomacy, where they will engage with the Iranians, the Syrians, the Turks, I think there is a potential that you could stabilize the situation."
For the past four years, Gates has served as president of Texas A&M; University, where he has built a reputation as an aggressive reformer. He is credited with persuading a tradition-steeped campus to embrace a more diverse student body and has elevated the intellectual reputation of the school, said Douglas Slack, speaker of the faculty senate.
Slack said Gates has tackled issues large and small - from budget cuts to parking assignments - with a pragmatic approach that won over critics.
However, he still has detractors in Washington. One is Harold P. Ford, a former senior CIA analyst who, along with several others, testified that Gates colored reports with his anti-Soviet bias, concluding incorrectly that Soviets were involved in a 1985 papal assassination attempt or building up connections between the Soviet Union and Iran.
Reached by phone at his Maryland home, Ford said he hoped senators would ask questions to gauge whether Gates "is going to be his own man because in the past he has tended to be ... a yes-man."
Boren said, however, that in months of investigations for Gates' 1991 nomination hearing, "we satisfied ourselves that he was not involved in any wrongdoing in regard to the Iran-contra matter or in regard to trying to slant intelligence."
Upon taking the helm at CIA, Gates worked to prove his critics wrong. He established task forces to evaluate different elements of U.S. intelligence, including one on "analytic objectivity." He adopted all of its recommendations, including augmenting training for analysts and managers and establishing an ombudsman, recalled Gannon, who headed that task force.
"Bob has learned from that [experience], and he is also at a different point in his life, when he now has some independent stature," said Jeffrey Smith, a former State Department official and congressional aide who worked with Gates over the years. "He can give the president the kind of unvarnished advice that he needs."
Boren said Gates didn't want to leave Texas A&M; and turned down an earlier offer from Bush to become the nation's spy chief when that office was created in 2004.
"If he's not listened to, if he feels he's just there to demonstrate some kind of cosmetic change instead of a real openness to policy options, I think he'll walk out the door," he said. "He really didn't want this job."
Gates' independence will likely be tested immediately, as he confronts the Iraq crisis.
He was a member, until recently, of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which on Wednesday will issue its long-awaited recommendations for how to move ahead in Iraq. The panel will reportedly recommend the gradual reduction of troops, but no set deadlines for withdrawal, and suggest engaging Iraq's neighbors in finding a regional solution.
But Bush has emphasized that he will be taking stock of a number of Iraq proposals, not just the one from the study group. And as Bush considers his options, Gates could find himself in a struggle for the president's ear.
He is a longtime friend of the Bush family, but Vice President Dick Cheney still carries considerable sway, said Smith.
"The challenge, frankly, for Bob at the highest level will be whether the president listens to Bob Gates or to the vice president," Smith said.
Gates and the administration will also need to change the way the American people view the situation in Iraq, said Zegart, who served as a policy adviser to Bush's 2000 campaign.
"He's going to have to be very deliberate and explicit about managing public expectations," she said. "One of the critical failures of the president was that he really mismanaged the public's expectations."
Gates will have to manage the Pentagon - with its $500 billion budget, nearly 670,000 civilian employees and 1.3 million active duty forces - which comes with Rumsfeld's unfinished agenda to transform the military into a smaller, more technologically advanced force.
The job comes with decisions about budget trade-offs, between expensive high-tech weapons systems and the decidedly low-tech anti-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates may also begin to untangle the increasingly convoluted post-9/11 relationship among the 16 military and national intelligence programs, former colleagues said.
Gates may not have time to get to longer-term goals, however.
"My fear is that Iraq is where the first, second, and third priorities are, and getting priorities in order for medium- and long-term intelligence is going to, by necessity, move down the list," said Zegart. "It will come back to bite us. What creates the next Iraq is bad intelligence."
Robert M. Gates
Secretary of Defense
CIA intelligence analyst, 1966-74; Air Force officer, Strategic Air Command, 1967-69; National Security Council aide, 1974-79; Senior CIA intelligence analyst positions, 1981-86; CIA deputy director, 1986-89; deputy national security adviser, 1989-91; CIA director, 1991-93; private consultant; interim dean of George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M; University, 1999-2001; president, Texas A&M; University, 2002-present.
Wife, Becky, and two children, Eleanor and Bradley.