Enter Bush the elder's statesman, to relief all round

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The Independent US

One by one, Daddy's wise men are coming back to rescue the struggling son.

First was James Baker, Secretary of State under Bush the elder, chosen to chair the bipartisan panel seeking a way out of the Iraq mess. Now it is the turn of Robert Gates, CIA director between 1991 and 1993. To him has fallen the toughest job of all: taking over the government department which actually runs the war.

Gates shares the keen intellect of Donald Rumsfeld, the man he will replace at the Pentagon, but little else. "Rummy" is domineering, abrasive and disinclined to listen to the generals who increasingly disliked him. The 63-year-old Gates spent most of his government career operating - to borrow the title of his 1996 memoir - 'From the Shadows,' either at the CIA, or the National Security Council at the White House.

A native Kansan, he is unflashy, pragmatic, buttoned-down in both dress and habits. He prefers to work behind the scenes. Unlike Rumsfeld, he is expected to let the top brass get on unimpeded with the job of running the military. As one observer put it yesterday, "he'll be a chairman rather than chief executive, but a chairman focussed on one thing alone: Iraq."

A year ago, the President offered him the newly created job (now held by former ambassador John Negroponte) of national intelligence director. Gates declined, preferring to remain in academia as President of Texas A&M University, where he used to run the Bush School of Government and Public Service. But he accepted this second offer to return to Washington, he said, "without hesitation."

And if the relief coursing around this city - and the praise for the appointment from both Democrats and Republicans alike - is anything to go by, there can be little doubt the Senate will confirm him, certainly by Christmas and possibly much sooner.

Uniquely among CIA directors, Gates was an in-house product, who joined the agency as a humble desk officer at the age of 23, immediately after leaving university. Thereafter he moved between the CIA and the National Security Council, where served five presidents, from Richard Nixon to Bush the elder.

Four were Republican, but one of the warmest tributes yesterday came from a close aide to the lone Democrat among them. "The best appointment of [this] President Bush in his six years in office," was the reaction of Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and Gates' boss between 1977 and 1979.

Gate's reputation is not spotless. As deputy director of the CIA in at the time of the Iran/Contra affair, he was compromised by, though ultimately exonerated in, the scandal that nearly toppled President Reagan. He was also accused of politicising intelligence on the Soviet Union during the mid-1980s.

Gates was a Soviet specialist, a long time hawk who only slowly tempered his views as Mikhail Gorbachev turned the rival superpower into something close to a partner of the US, especially in the first Iraq war. But the senior Bush made him a trusted member of the most competent, and certainly the smoothest-working, US national security team of recent times.

He is too discreet to let slip whether he shared the opposition to the 2003 invasion of his former mentor and boss Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser between 1989 and 1993 - an opposition shared, many suspect, by the current President's father.

But he has not concealed his dismay at the conduct of the war, and in a widely-noted study co-authored for the Council of Foreign Relations in 2004, he advocated direct talks between the US and Iran - an approach rejected by Bush junior.

But such differences are past. In 2003 George W. Bush ignored the reasons set out by his father for not going all the way to Baghdad 12 years earlier, and has paid a terrible price for his presumption. It is up to Robert Gates to help find a way out.