Bob Gates is Mr. Establishment... and that's worrying

In the world of Gates, terrorism, much like the weather, just seems to happen. The notion that something ideological -- a grand political goal -- motivates terrorism, is apparently a conceptual bridge too far for Gates

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Bob Gates and Barack Obama
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Christian Whiton
On 29 January 2014 15:52

Can you image if Robert Lovett, a Republican who served as President Harry Truman’s secretary of defense during the Korean War, left office and wrote a book that ignored communism, only mentioned the Soviet Union in passing, and reserved more criticism for Washington and London’s South Korean wartime allies than for our North Korean and Chinese enemies?

It would have been odd. Yet Robert Gates effectively authored the modern analogue of this in “Duty: Memoirs of  a Secretary at War.”  Lost amid early reviews of the former Pentagon chief’s new book, which stressed its political gossip, was just how poor his analysis of the world is -- and what that says about our national security establishment embodied so perfectly by the politically androgynous Mr. Gates.

In the world of Gates, terrorism, much like the weather, just seems to happen. The notion that something ideological -- a grand political goal -- motivates terrorism, just as the communist ideology drove political subversion and military aggression in an earlier era, is apparently a conceptual bridge too far for Gates.

Thus one word you will find nowhere in “Duty’s” 594 pages is “Islamism.” And what is never mentioned was presumably never targeted as a threat by the vast bureaucracy Mr. Gates oversaw for four years. That might explain why the political-military force whose name must never be uttered has done so well these past several years -- especially its terrorist vanguard. 

If the Pentagon’s $600-billion-per-year apparatus is not much concerned with Islamism, then what does fill its imagination today?  Mr. Gates is good enough to mention China in his book.

You may know this country as having an illegitimate government that is two decades into a headlong military buildup, that seeks to exclude the United States and its allies from the Western Pacific, that systematically steals U.S. intellectual property and military secrets, and that is preparing one day to stage a cyber Pearl Harbor attack against its perceived foes.

Mr. Gates, however, does not know that China. Instead, to him, Beijing is a government to consult on other matters, to visit on trips to Asia, and about which to relay blithe process-related trivialities to the reader: “President Bush and Chinese president Hu Jintao had agreed that the military-to-military relationship between our two countries needed to be strengthened.”

There is one passage where Gates acknowledges that China is potentially dangerous, but only in relation to his supposedly courageous early halt to F-22 fighter plane production (to favor the more pork-ridden fiasco known as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter). 

He writes: “Did [the F-22’s] defenders think the Chinese wouldn’t destroy bases in Japan and elsewhere launching U.S. warplanes against them?”  Setting aside the military reality that air bases are actually defended and can be supplanted if necessary by other airports and highways in emergencies, Gates’s argument is, in effect, an argument against having any foreign-based or deployed fighters in the Pacific.

This point might contribute to a useful debate if it posited replacing fighter planes (where the human on-board is increasingly the weakest link) with UAVs, rebuilding the navy, canceling vulnerable toys like the Littoral Combat Ship, and pushing back more broadly on Beijing’s economic, cyber, and political warfare against its opponents.

But of course that broader discussion, upsetting as it would be of Washington’s received wisdom and big defense contracts, is not at all what Gates has in mind.

As a reader would expect, “Duty” devotes many pages instead to decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan in the Bush and Obama administrations. Gates praises Bush for the successful 2007 surge of forces in Iraq, describing it as one of three instances in his career where a president took an unpopular stand for the good of the country (the other two, to Gates, were Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush’s decision to break his pledge not to raise taxes). 

In this instance, Gates is actually selling himself short and leaving out a major part of history. Undisclosed to the reader, the reason Gates was lured back into government from Texas A&M was due to the scheming of Condoleezza Rice, who in 2005 was elevated by Bush from national security advisor to secretary of state.

At top-level White House meetings, Rice did not much like having to contend with Vice President Richard Cheney or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, both of whom were more experienced, persuasive, and conservative than Rice and her lieutenants. As Iraq languished in violence and after Republicans were decimated in the 2006 midterm elections, Rice took the opportunity to sideline her opposition.

The installation of reliable bureaucrat Bob Gates at the Pentagon would mean the end of Rumsfeld and the isolation of Cheney. After that, talking Bush out of a surge in Iraq in favor of de facto withdrawal would be a cinch and Rice could proceed with other establishment dreams like entente with Russia, China, and the Palestinians, along with readmission to the diplomatic salons of Old Europe after the acrimony of Iraq. 

But the scheme didn’t go completely according to plan. Whether he knew better than the academician Rice of the political, economic, and security consequences of losing a war, or whether he was simply unwilling personally to be a secretary of defense who went down in history overseeing an allied defeat, Gates departed from Rice’s script and supported the surge in Iraq. 

The added allied forces, aided by a new commander with a new strategy, defeated the insurgency. Whether Rice felt betrayed by Gates’s resolve, as some of us at the State Department suspected, remains a secret between the two former cabinet members.  

Gates’s wisdom on Iraq -- and the role for which he deserves credit -- begins and ends with the surge. Beyond that episode of military brilliance, Gates, like the rest of the foreign policy establishment, betrays a fundamental ignorance of the political contests afoot in the Middle East.

For example, of the subsequent turning point in Iraq following the March 2010 elections and the ensuing six-month political stalemate, Gates has little to say. While he observes that Ayad Allawi had more support at the polls than Nouri al-Maliki, Gates casts the United States as an impartial onlooker and lauds the “absence of a return to the kind of sectarian violence that followed the 2005 election…” 

In reality, feckless Obama officials like Ambassador Chris Hill undertook a languid effort to reconcile two opposing visions for Iraq, eventually leading to Maliki’s snatching of the premiership.

It should have surprised no one when Maliki subsequently opened the country to Iranian influence and enflamed sectarian animosity -- bad for both Iraq and the United States. Not for the first time in our history, the gains our young men and women won on the battlefield were partially squandered by careerists in the foreign policy establishment.

That, however, is only the tip of the iceberg with Gates’s poor judgment of foreign political affairs. One of the most stunning assessments comes in his lead-in to writing about the Arab Spring:

“The history of revolutions is not a happy one. Most often repressive authoritarian governments are swept out, and power ends up in the hands not of moderate reformers but of better-organized and far more ruthless extremists -- as in France in 1793 (the Reign of Terror), Russia in 1917 (the Bolsheviks), China in 1949 (Mao), Cuba in 1959 (Castro), and Iran in 1979 (Ayatollah Khomeini). In fact, it is hard to think of a major exception to this fate aside from the American Revolution…

Interesting, but for the sake of argument, let’s see if we can’t come up with a “major exception” or two to the Gates rule that political revolutions are bad for the West and generally unhappy experiences. 

There’s Portugal in 1976, Spain in 1978, South Korea and the Philippines in 1986, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania in 1989, the Soviet Union in 1991, Taiwan in 1996, Indonesia in 1998, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2005. Aside from those, Gates’s theory is airtight.

However, in each of those instances, a repressive government was replaced with one that was democratic to one degree or another, and the countries became either better allies or less problematic concerns for the United States.

Incidentally, the list excludes freedom revolutions that could have been, but which failed, some due in part to decisions in Washington and London not to get involved, perhaps at the urging of Gates-like bureaucrats concerned about potential post-dictatorship unhappiness.

Examples include crushed uprisings in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, China in 1989, Iraq in 1991, and Iran in 2009 -- the latter of which occurred when Gates himself was plumped behind the secretary’s desk in the Pentagon’s E-Ring, heeding advice, he admits, from State Department and CIA bureaucrats to avoid giving even verbal support to pro-democracy protesters in Iran who, had they succeeded, would have made the world much safer for the United States and its allies.   

However, we should be thankful to Gates for what he reveals. Whether it is led by Republicans or Democrats, the Washington foreign policy establishment has been staggeringly ignorant of foreign political forces and how they will affect U.S. interests. This is not only true of illiberal political forces that can hurt us, like Islamism, but also those helpful forces that can make life difficult for our adversaries. 

In this vein, Gates writes one of the book’s many draw-droppers. Regarding the Arab Spring, he declares: “Above all, we must stop pretending to ourselves that we can predict (or shape) the outcome.”

This statement is stunning on multiple levels. While it is well known that America’s $80-billion-pear-year intelligence bureaucracy missed the coming of the Arab Spring, it is disheartening that the man who once led that bureaucracy as George H. W. Bush’s director of central intelligence thinks it is fine to throw in the towel on even trying to forecast political movements of great consequence. Worse still is his belief we cannot shape them.

Throughout its history, the cause of the United States has been perhaps the most radical, transformational, and enduring political force in the world since Jesus. The mushrooming number of democracies that have emerged since America’s founding is just one example of this.

The power of America, Britain and their allies to shape foreign events today is not infinite, but it is more substantial than many would like to admit. A major reason political developments in the Middle East have not advanced allied interests recently is because Gates and his colleagues in the Obama cabinet refused even to attempt to influence them to our benefit.      

What’s particularly amusing about Gates’s defeatism is that it is at odds with his view that “…American presidents, confronted with a tough military problem abroad, have too often been too quick to reach for a gun -- to use military force.” What then does Gates have in mind as an alternative?

One exists: it used to be called political warfare, and the free world waged it deftly against communism and fascism to complement its military means. In World War II, Britain had a highly effective Political Warfare Executive. During the Cold War, waging political war was one reason the CIA Gates would later lead was established in 1947 and given the ability to conduct covert activities. But Gates tacitly rejects this nonviolent alternative to war in challenging our adversaries. 

“Duty” also reveals that Gates brought a State Department mentality to the Pentagon on the issue of allies -- namely Foggy Bottom’s unspoken belief that being harsh with America’s friends can help it make progress with adversaries. Nowhere is this clearer than in Gates’s ruminations on Israel.

Gates clearly despises Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When he first met Netanyahu in the elder Bush’s administration, Gates was apparently “offended by his glibness and his criticism of U.S. policy -- not to mention his arrogance and outlandish ambition…”

One wonders if Gates was ever offended by allies like the Chirac-led French, who tried to organize a diplomatic axis against the coalition during the Iraq War, or the Pakistanis, who harbored Bin Laden and still today use Islamist terrorists as tools of national power. Only his bitterness about Israel made the book.  

On Israel and Iran, Gates’s strategic assessments are again facile. Gates says he informed Netanyahu in a dispute over Iran policy: “I said the Iranians -- the Persians -- were very different from Iraqis and Syrians.”

This Wikipedia-entry-grade analysis may not have been of tremendous value to Netanyahu, who had presumably already examined the government that lives to destroy his nation and enslave the rest of the Middle East. 

As with the rest of the Washington foreign policy establishment, Gates is convinced that a military strike on Iran to disrupt its nuclear program would lead to regional war. One wonders if Gates, who as younger man was the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for the Soviet Union, is projecting on Tehran the modus operandi of his former portfolio subject, with its considerably greater capabilities. 

The Israelis, who have the most at stake, believe an Iranian response would be limited -- perhaps not unlike the two other instances where Israeli military strikes ended dangerous Middle Eastern nuclear programs.

Gates is also blames the victim of terrorism: “I believe Israel’s strategic situation is worsening, its own actions contributing to its isolation.”

But the biggest whopper is his claim in an argument with Netanyahu: “Exasperated, I shot back that no U.S. administration had done more, in concrete ways, for Israel’s strategic defense than Obama’s…”  This of the American president who negotiated to appease Iran behind the backs of Israel and other American allies in the Middle East.

Despite its consistently bad analysis, “Duty” is still worth reading for those trying to understand how Washington has botched events in the Middle East so badly.  It is also a useful reminder of just how churlish and immature Obama and his senior aides have been, especially in instances Gates relates about the early days after the Bush team left town.

Obama’s suspicions of the military, which was trying to ensure it had adequate resources in Afghanistan to conduct the counterinsurgency strategy Obama himself ordered, reveal a president whose self-righteousness and self-appreciation are legion.  On Libya, Gates exposes an aloof president who made decisions based on emotion. 

Ultimately, “Duty” is the latest in a literary genre that is historically useful but tends to be self-promoting and self-congratulatory.  Of course, it should surprise no one that cabinet officials use their books to take credit for successes and distance themselves from failures.

Winston Churchill captured this dynamic in his quote: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” In “Duty,” Gates gives his and the establishment’s version of history.  Unfortunately for them, he won’t be the only one writing it.

Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.” He was a State Department senior advisor during the George W. Bush administration

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