“Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.”
– John Milton, Samson Agonistes
Spies are inherently suspect people. For the sake of what remains of our democracy, they must be kept on a short leash.
That is my conclusion from the furor surrounding former Secretary of Defense and onetime career CIA employee Robert M. Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense at War, a political PSYOP disguised as a candid, tell-all memoir. The immediate cause of the controversy is Gates’s claim that President Obama did not believe in the military’s strategy for Afghanistan that Gates and his subordinates were pressing him to adopt. The media, as usual, have turned up all manner of red herrings in the furtherance of a shallow “clash of personalities” narrative. Among others, the Washington Post‘s resident funnyman, Dana Milbank, chides Gates for not having told Obama at the time all the things about the war he later stated in the book. We need not examine in detail all the attendant facts and circumstances that led to the military escalation in Afghanistan; if the reader needs a recapitulation, journalist Gareth Porter has already done an excellent job. The timing of Gates’s jeremiad is interesting, but ultimately insignificant when compared with a larger fact: it is a peculiar kind of candor to criticize a person for accepting, however grudgingly, the advice that Gates himself tendered, particularly when that advice was based on phony assessments and led to futility and failure.
This is not the place to defend Obama; much of his foreign policy resembles a watered-down version of the Bush policies that Obama’s 2008 presidential candidacy was dedicated to criticizing. And no one forced him to keep Gates. I do recall one defense industry source who told me at the time that Gates was essentially able to dictate to Obama the terms under which he would serve. If true, it speaks volumes about Obama that he was so eager to placate the Washington consensus that he allowed a holdover from an administration of the rival party, and a Bush family retainer to boot, to write his own job description for a crucial portfolio like the Department of Defense.
Nor does Vice President Biden deserve any impassioned defense. As far back as 1998, Biden appears to have been a proponent of “regime change” (i.e., overthrow of a sovereign government by overt or covert means) in Iraq, on the pretext of Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. His patronizing and insulting behavior towards a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq named Scott Ritter (calling him “Scotty Boy” in a congressional hearing) was characteristic of his rhetorical style. After voting in 2002 to authorize the military invasion of Iraq, Biden has spent the remainder of his career – like many Democrats who voted likewise – engaging in tortuous logic-chopping about how they were deceived by Bush, that there weren’t enough troops, that poor tactics were used, and so on. The real reason for their affirmative votes was that they were terrified for their electoral prospects, because Bush’s handlers had cunningly pushed for the authorization vote just prior to the 2002 midterm elections even though the invasion would not occur until five months later.
Perhaps, unlike the Bourbon kings of France, it cannot be said of Biden that “he forgets nothing and he learns nothing.” At least by 2009, he had learned not to trust the self-serving assessments of general officers. Even a blind hog occasionally finds an acorn, but it is precisely that late-won ability which earns Biden the indignation of Gates. For the former Secretary of Defense, disbelieving the generals is rudeness equivalent to lèse-majesté; ritualized genuflection before the military brass has become a convention since 9/11.
Gates has thereby contributed to the sowing of confusion in the minds of Americans about what actually constitutes honoring the troops. The enlisted ranks who actually fight the wars end up in many cases gravely wounded or contesting disability ratings with the VA bureaucracy while at the same time facing a civilian economy with few career slots for someone whose occupational specialty was combat infantry. By contrast, during the dozen years of the so-called war on terror, no generals have been killed in action, unlike in World War II, when approximately 40 were killed. The war in Afghanistan is run out of Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, 8000 miles distant from the theater of action. The last time I was in Tampa, the principal threat was sunburn. And the brass’s post-military prospects seem brighter than those of the troops they command: According to 2011 Bloomberg News article, “The top 10 U.S. defense contractors have 30 retired senior officers or former national security officials serving on their boards. Press releases issued by those companies since 2008 announced the hiring of almost two dozen prominent flag officers or senior officials as high-ranking executives.” The article also states that senior executives at the largest US defense contractors are paid from $1 million to $11 million a year .
An enduring mystery is the incongruous sentimentality that ruthless men of affairs frequently show. Like Citizen Kane’s Rosebud, it is something that can be depicted, but never quite explained. I am sure that Gates’s feelings towards combat soldiers, which he so visibly shows in public, are perfectly genuine. One of the things that the Post’s Dan Zak noticed about Gates upon interviewing him is how often the tears well up and the voice breaks when the former defense secretary talks about the troops. His forcing the military’s medical command to reduce the maximum time allotted to evacuate a wounded soldier to a hospital from two hours to one is surely admirable.
All of that mitigates, but does not nullify, the crux of the matter: was the surge in Iraq wise or necessary given that it reinforced failure in a war launched on false pretenses, in a country which was bound to lapse into sectarian violence after the United States inevitably withdrew? Is Gates accordingly justified or unjustified in excoriating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for saying at the time that the war was lost? Was the surge in Afghanistan, and its attendant casualties, wise or necessary given that the United States had already remained too long, and that the number of US troops was irrelevant as long as Afghanistan was saddled with the Karzai regime? Is Gates accordingly justified or unjustified in criticizing Obama and Biden for their doubts about the strategy and their lack of confidence in the kleptocratic Hamid Karzai?
Beyond the tears and the invocations of duty, there remains the stone-cold truth that for more than three decades, Gates has been a consigliere of the Bush family. Investigative journalist Robert Parry has recounted the whole saga here. One does not have to believe, as Parry does, that Gates was involved in the October Surprise, an alleged deal between the Reagan campaign and Iranian operatives to withhold return of the US hostages in Teheran until President Reagan was inaugurated. I don’t know, not having been there at the time – although it would not be the first time a political campaign sabotaged a US Government negotiation with another country. I was, however, on Capitol Hill a short while later when the CIA, with Gates’s assistance as deputy director of intelligence (he had previously been a Soviet analyst for the agency), issued greatly overstated estimates of the Soviet threat. These estimates, and the military spending spree they unleashed, had serious adverse consequences for the federal deficit. Shortly after that, the world learned about the arms-for-hostages scandal known as Iran-Contra. That tragicomic, illegal operation required an assessment by the CIA that moderate factions in Iran were, in fact, ready to make a deal. That assessment being forthcoming from the CIA (as Gates moved up to deputy director of the agency), the US secretly prepared to “tilt toward Iran.” A man in his position was also situated to know exactly what sort of “freedom fighters” we were sending arms to both in Central America and Afghanistan.
His agency somehow missed one of the epochal events of the twentieth century: the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the information was available in advance for anyone willing to listen, and it didn’t require believing President Gorbachev. In 1985, I attended an unclassified symposium on the Soviet Union that was held in Annapolis, Maryland. One of the experts was Murray Feshbach, then a demographer for the US Census Bureau. Rather than interpreting the state of Soviet power from satellite photographs of missile fields or shipyards, he looked at available data about life expectancy at birth, fertility rates, infant mortality, nutrition, and so on, and the implication was – for me at least – that the USSR was a walking corpse, that it could not sustain itself as a superpower for much longer. That’s it – no hocus pocus with moles in the Kremlin, no SDI, no death rays, no training of insurgent armies. Just hard, objective data laid out by an unbiased researcher. Gates’s criticism of Biden for being wrong about everything in foreign policy is ironic considering his own demonstrable complicity in deliberately exaggerated Soviet threat assessments.
Having courageously rendered his analytical services to the cause, Gates found himself nominated to be Director of Central Intelligence in 1987. Congress was not receptive, as it was still reeling from the revelation that we had sold lethal weaponry to arch-enemy Iran. It did not help, either, that Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh was subjecting his activities to close examination. Walsh was extremely frustrated that the sharp and incisive Gates had developed such a poor memory of the Iran caper. The White House withdrew his nomination.
Gates subsequently did some bench-warming in government positions that did not require Senate confirmation while the Iran-Contra investigation slowly ground forward like a tectonic fault line. At the time, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was himself not out of the earthquake zone: he admitted to being regularly briefed on the Iranian arms sales in a deposition taken by the special prosecutor despite the vice president’s public statements that he was “out of the loop” with regard to the diversion of the proceeds to the Contras. But when Bush ascended to the presidency, he proved that the Bush family took care of its own, particularly when the hired help had engaged in activities of such a delicate nature that ensuring their future discretion was advisable.
In 1991, with his approval rating increased as a result of the walkover in the Gulf war, Bush nominated Gates for another try to become CIA director. But this sparked a revolt among CIA career staff, and several current or former agency employees testified or submitted affidavits about Gates’s past intelligence distortions. One agency alumnus, Harold P. Ford, testified that Gates’s behavior went “beyond professional bounds.” One would have thought Congress would still be resistant to his confirmation, given that the Iran-Contra special prosecutor hadn’t yet wrapped up the case. But the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, David L. Boren of Oklahoma (like Bush, a Yale alumnus and a fellow Skull and Bones initiate) brushed aside all the inconvenient evidence. Boren’s chief of staff was George J. Tenet, who would be CIA director under another Bush presidency. The fix was in, and Bush, who went on to pardon all the convicted conspirators of Iran-Contra on his way out the Oval Office door, was not about to be denied the confirmation of someone who had rendered such invaluable past service. Or someone who knew so much.
In between the two Bush presidencies, Gates became – quelle surprise! – dean of the newly-minted George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Later he was president of that university. This is not the place to exhaustively examine the subject, but Gates’s tenure at Texas A&M is another example of the corrosive effect of the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system. While these persons’ fundraising prowess based on their extensive network of rich contacts as well as their ability to wangle federal education grants may benefit the university in the short run, the intellectually corrupting influence of such operatives, along with the growing dependence of universities on a cadre of politically motivated government elites, poses a long-term threat to the academic independence of higher education. One need only look at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the bleaching tub of the self-perpetuating American political oligarchy, to see the danger.
Fast forward to the next Bush administration. By late 2006, the Iraq war was going so poorly, and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was so cordially loathed, that Bush decided to reboot the system. Rumsfeld would go, and in his place, the old family Mr. Fix-It would sell the policy. Gates frequently contradicts himself in his memoir in his judgments about people and events, but there is no wavering of his steady detestation of Congress and the elected officials who warm their chairs there. That is certainly a judgment that is not without merit, but in the case of his confirmation as Secretary of Defense by a vote of 95-2, he was the prime beneficiary both of circumstances and Congress’s frequent bouts of amnesia. Because the Senate Armed Services Committee was overjoyed at seeing the last of Rumsfeld, they asked Gates no awkward questions, either about current strategy or about past events in which Gates had either inside knowledge or active participation – the “tilt to Iraq” which strengthened Saddam Hussein and helped lead inexorably to the first Gulf war and then the invasion of Iraq; or the arming of the Afghan mujaheddin, which helped lay the groundwork both for 9/11 and the Afghan quagmire that bedevils us yet. No, at the time of the hearing, I got the sense that the Armed Services Committee members would have liked to carry him in triumph in a sedan chair to the floor of the Senate for confirmation, simply because he was not Rumsfeld.
Now, in his dotage, Gates sits in his study in Skagit, Washington, like Samson in Gaza. Whereas the latter blamed Delilah because his schemes had not worked according to plan, Gates holds Congress responsible for the woeful results of his participation in remaking the Greater Middle East. His militaristic accomplishments now in the past, Gates agonizes to reporters over the human cost of America’s duty to lead the world, even as he decries political decision-making in national security policy. On his book promotion tour, when fielding curiously softball questions from Jon Stewart, Gates assumed the admonitory tone of a statesman in saying that presidents are perhaps too quick to reach for military solutions to foreign policy problems. This from a defense secretary who lobbied for and administered the military escalations of two wars, one of which US troops are still fighting! One wonders whether this statement derived from his certainty that he could con Stewart, or from an autistic lack of self-awareness. In any case, Stewart did not follow up.
Elsewhere in the interview, Gates also allowed that America is after all an “indispensable nation.” That phrase is revealing. Certain types of operatives in Washington, particularly in the national security field, are careful to project an apolitical, non-ideological persona. Their preferred pose is that of the politically neutral technocrat offering well-considered advice based on profound expertise. That is nonsense. They are deeply dyed in the hue of the official ideology of the governing class, an ideology that is neither specifically Democrat nor Republican. When Gates endorsed the notion of America as an indispensable nation, he was expressing the ideology of American Exceptionalism: the right and duty of the United States to meddle in every region of the world, to use coercive diplomacy, boots on the ground, and moral relativism when it comes to adherence to international law. A simple examination of Gates’s past should have revealed the deeply political nature of his activities, not to mention sordid affairs like Iran-Contra. But the press, as always, is more interested in concocting the theatrical narrative of a gruff truth-teller, of a righteous Daniel pronouncing judgment on the miserable sinners of Babylon by the banks of the Potomac.
1. David H. Petraeus, the general who Gates believed was disrespected by the Obama White House, seems to have landed on his feet after retirement. He joined KKR (formerly Kohlberg Kravis Roberts) of 9 West 57th Street, New York, a private equity firm with $40 billion in assets. KKR specializes in management buyouts and leveraged finance. General Petraeus’s past expertise in those specialties is unknown.