The Self-Importance of Being Robert M. Gates

The Self-Importance of Being Robert M. Gates

The leak of a sensitive policy memorandum from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the president’s national security adviser points to both a serious lack of discipline within the Obama administration as well as the defense secretary’s effort to steal a march on his national security colleagues. The memorandum reportedly declaims the absence of an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

In doing so, the memorandum explicitly criticizes the lack of strategic thinking on our most sensitive nuclear issue and implicitly criticizes President Barack Obama, national security adviser Jim Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for mishandling Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The memorandum also suggests that Gates is dissatisfied with the efforts to engage Iran diplomatically and does not believe that a sanctions regime will limit Iran’s nuclear progress.

In 2009, Gates was out of line with his colleagues in describing relations with Iran. President Obama and Secretary Clinton initially signaled that Iran would be given a “clear opportunity” to engage the international community. At the same time, Gates was briefing the Senate Armed Forces Committee, accusing Iran of engaging in “subversive activity” in South America and Central America. He offered no specifics regarding Iranian “meddling,” and there has been no confirmation of such activity from intelligence community sources. Gates drove outside the policy lanes during his tours of duty at the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, and it is not surprising to find that the secretary of defense is still engaging in promoting himself at the expense of his senior colleagues.

Dennis Ross, the current “tsar” for policy toward Iran, noted – when he served as director of the policy planning staff for Secretary of State James Baker – that Gates tried to undercut efforts to improve relations with the Soviet Union. The memoirs of former secretaries of state George Shultz and Baker fully documented Gates’ efforts to undercut the diplomacy of the State Department in the 1980’s and early 1990’s to resolve conflicts in the Third World and to return to détente with the Soviet Union. Shultz, who believed that CIA intelligence was distorted by the strong personal views of Acting CIA Director Gates, accused him of “manipulating” the secretary of state. Baker threatened to take his disagreements with Gates to President George H.W. Bush, if national security adviser Brent Scowcroft didn’t get his deputy under control.

If President Obama had taken the time to read Gates’ own memoir, he would have gained a better understanding of the former CIA director’s ability to reduce the scope of the Cold War to the life and times of Bob Gates. The fact that Gates could honor the performance of William Casey as CIA director and, at the same time, dismiss Shultz as “naïve … petty and mean” and criticize Baker for taking “credit that in fact belonged to the president” could have informed the president of the shallowness of President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense.

During his CIA career in the 1980’s as deputy director for intelligence and deputy CIA director, Gates typically favored military solutions to complex geopolitical problems. In key instances, he ignored the intelligence assessments of his senior analysts and forwarded sensitive memoranda to the CIA director that ignored the prescription against policy advocacy in the intelligence community. A highly classified memorandum to CIA Director Casey in December 1984, for example, exaggerated Nicaragua as a “second Cuba in Central America” and called for air strikes on the “Nicaraguan military build-up.” Gates reminded Casey that “attempts to reach an accommodation with Castro” and “our Vietnam strategy of half-measures” ended in negotiations, which became a “cover for consolidation of communist control.” Gates wrote a series of these memoranda to Casey in the 1980’s to establish his hard-line bona fides and ingratiate himself with the CIA director.

During the same period, Gates was involved in a series of steps to sabotage every aspect of the State Department’s efforts to negotiate a successful conclusion to the fighting in southern Africa. Gates also encouraged greater covert action in such places as Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia and Cambodia, and censored CIA assessments that demonstrated the Soviet Union was undertaking reduced interest and activity in these places. Gates sponsored a National Intelligence Estimate to undermine the argument for pressing the South Africa government to pursue negotiations with the African National Council. Gates exaggerated the strength of the insurgency in Mozambique in order to undercut the diplomatic activities of Secretary of State Shultz and Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, who favored the use of diplomacy to stabilize southern Africa. In their memoirs, both Shultz and Crocker documented the lack of analytical objectivity at the CIA on policy-sensitive subjects regarding Africa.

Gates blocked CIA intelligence assessments that presented evidence of a general Soviet retreat from the Third World, including a possible withdrawal from Afghanistan, and encouraged assessments that exaggerated Moscow’s global presence in order to justify increases in US spending on defense and intelligence, which ballooned during the Reagan administration. In his inaugural address, President Obama emphasized that “power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.” Gates’ memorandum on Iran suggests that he was not listening to the president’s speech. Our national security position would be much stronger if we had a secretary of defense willing to address the $300 billion in cost overruns on our largest weapons systems over the past decade rather than looking for more uses for American military power.

Gates’ credibility has always been a subject of controversy since he lied to a Congressional committee in 1987 about his knowledge of Iran-contra and was forced to withdraw his nomination as CIA director. He considers himself the ultimate insider who has served seven presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, as well as national security advisers as diverse as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. In the past I have described him as a chameleon, but the fact is that Gates has always been more comfortable nesting among the hawks as a bird of prey. In the mid-1980’s, when the Soviets were trying to achieve arms control and détente with the United States, Gates made a series of “War by Another Name” speeches. These were totally wrong-headed in their approach to the role of the Soviet Union in the global community, particularly the Third World.

Gates was never the right choice as President Obama’s secretary of defense, and even Obama should now understand that there are no limits to Gates’ self-promotion and self-aggrandizement.