Does Gates's History Mean Continuity or Change in Iraq?

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I've just finished reading Robert Gates's memoir, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War. It's a well-written, thoughtful book, leavened by occasional injections of nerdy humor. Gates was a career CIA employee on the analysis rather than the operations side of the agency, and the only CIA analyst ever to become director of Central Intelligence. He specialized in the Soviet Union, though he never set foot in the U.S.S.R. until May 1989. His rapid ascent was amazing. Recruited while a graduate student at Indiana University, he served in the Air Force from 1967 to 1969, at the CIA from 1969 to 1974, at the National Security Council from 1974 to 1979, back to the CIA again from 1979 to 1989, where he became deputy director for intelligence in 1982. He was nominated to be director of central intelligence in 1987, but withdrew his nomination after it became clear that a Senate obsessed with Iran-contra would not confirm him. He was deputy national security adviser from 1989 to 1991 and then director of central intelligence from 1991 to 1993.

He served in the White House under four presidents: Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Bush. And, as deputy to William Casey and then William Webster, he had ready access to the Reagan White House. As a career civil servant, albeit one who rose rapidly and to very high ranks, Gates tends to see continuity between different administrations. He argues in his memoirs, for example, that many of Reagan's policies had their roots in the Carter administration, including the defense buildup and the stress on human rights: "Indeed, the secret that all five of the Presidents and their political advisers hid from the American public was the extraordinary continuity in U.S. dealings with the Soviet Union from administration to administration. Hidden because, regardless of philosophy, the public approach of challengers in our politics is usually to tear down rather than to promise to build upon the work of incumbents—especially if the incumbent is of the other party.

"In truth, the roots of Nixon's SALT negotiations and his strategic programs were, for the most part, in the Johnson administration. Ford embraced Nixon's détente until Soviet actions forced a change. Carter's human-rights campaign built on Ford's signature of the Helsinki Declaration. He continued all but one of Nixon's strategic weapons programs as well as, ultimately, Ford's approach to SALT. Reagan's strategic programs, covert confrontation with the Soviets in the Third World, economic pressures, eventual engagement on arms control, and attacks on the legitimacy of the Soviet government itself built on Carter's efforts in each arena—even though partisans of both Presidents would rather have their tongues turn black and fall out than admit this."

As one who has approached foreign policy from a position as an analyst of domestic politics, I am inclined to look for big shifts in policies when Democrats replace Republicans and vice versa. But I found Gates's arguments on these issues mostly persuasive. The U.S. government is a big ship to turn around and shifts that seem small, such as Ford's on Helsinki, can turn out to have major changes on the course of the ship many years later. Around Washington these days it's assumed that when Gates takes over as secretary of defense he will make major course changes in Iraq. His stress on continuity leaves me wondering whether that will be the case.

Yet Gates also discusses times in which policy had to change course sharply in response to rapid changes in the world, notably during the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. Interestingly, this career government bureaucrat did not find the government bureaucracies of much use in coming up with new ideas. Instead, his impulse was to create small committees of political appointees. In July 1989, he sent Bush a memo citing developments in the Soviet Union and concluding that "we should not be confident of Gorbachev remaining in power."

As Gates recounts in his book: "Bush agreed to the contingency planning I had first considered in the spring, and in September 1989, I asked Condi Rice to gather a group of people and in very great secrecy begin this work. When I met with her to explain the task, I told her that I thought the planning was very important because the situation in the Soviet Union could go bad in a hurry, and the U.S. government was on 'autopilot' when it came to thinking about such dramatic developments. Her group included Dennis Ross at State; Fritz Ermarth and Bob Blackwell from CIA; and Paul Wolfowitz and Eric Edelman from Defense. This group commissioned a number of studies by CIA and used them in reviewing and planning U.S. options. While no such effort can prescribe in detail policies based on specific future events, this work served us to great advantage in dealing with events over the next two years, and especially as the Soviet Union imploded in 1991."

Will Gates proceed similarly at Defense?

Gates was known during the 1980s as a hard-liner and was, by his account, often criticized by Secretary of State George Shultz for making it more difficult to negotiate arms control agreements with the Soviets. He responds by quoting some of his analyses that turned out to be prescient, but he also admits that he was wrong on occasion. He portrays himself as a frequent critic of the operations side of the CIA and as skeptical about the effectiveness of covert action in opposing Soviet initiatives. He writes that his preference, at least on Nicaragua, was a bolder and more open policy.

"By the end of 1984, I concluded that we were kidding ourselves if we thought the contras might win. I wrote [CIA Director William] Casey on December 14, and began by saying, 'The contras can't overthrow the Sandinista regime.' I continued that we were muddling along in Nicaragua with a halfhearted policy because of the lack of agreement within the administration and with Congress on our real objectives. I urged moving to an overt policy including withdrawal of diplomatic recognition; providing open military assistance and funds for a government-in-exile; imposing economic sanctions, perhaps including a quarantine; and using air strikes to destroy Nicaragua's military buildup–no invasion but no more Soviet/Cuban military deliveries. I concluded, 'Relying on and supporting the contras as our only action may actually hasten the ultimate, unfortunate outcome.'"

Those who see Gates as a consistent opponent of bold action may turn out to be disappointed. But neither was he deferential to Congress, on Nicaragua anyway. Here is his reflection in recounting events in December 1984:

"One of the enduring characteristics of Congress, especially on foreign affairs, is its eagerness to avoid clear-cut actions that will leave the Hill unambiguously responsible if something goes wrong, especially if they have acted contrary to the president."

Later, looking ahead to the Iran-contra scandal, he points the same finger at Congress:

"In sum, the second ingredient in the contra time bomb was a Congress, like the administration, unwilling to take the Nicaragua issue head-on. Instead, it steadily circumscribed CIA's ability to support the contras but without ever passing legislation that would just kill outright all American assistance to the resistance–a politically risky move that would leave Congress holding a smoking gun if Nicaragua became a Soviet outpost and communist-backed insurgencies threatened other governments in the region."

This all leads me to expect that Gates expects the Democratic Congress will not command the Pentagon to leave Iraq.

What might be Gates's attitude toward confronting the governments of Iran and Syria, which support terrorists? Here's his account of what he told Casey in February 1985, after Ronald Reagan and George Shultz asked Casey for an analysis of actions that could be taken against them.

"On February 14, I sent Casey our first assessment of Iranian, Syrian, and Libyan support to terrorism and their respective vulnerability to retaliation.

"Our work on the vulnerability of the three major state sponsors of terrorism–Libya, Iran, and Syria–began to provide the administration with information they could use, if only to begin thinking about real action against state-supported terrorism. We did targeting studies of Libyan and Iranian ports and military facilities, and examined similar targets in Syria. We analyzed the potential impact of various kinds of sanctions.

"We focused especially in Iran, the worst offender. The downsides of an attack on Iran, to everyone's regret, outweighed how much Iran deserved punishment. We pointed out that failure to hit Iran would ensure that Iranian-sponsored terrorism would continue and even grow, but terrorist-connected targets were near cities and attacks against them would, by themselves, have little impact. We suggested that while sustained military and economic pressure on Tehran might over time strengthen 'moderates,' it could also drive the Iranians closer to the Soviets for protection. And that was perhaps the most significant deterrent. This Iran proved 'too hard'–a limited attack would, as a participant in one meeting indelicately put it, 'just piss them off' and make things worse.

"Syria was not seriously considered as a target because such action would almost certainly bring a confrontation with the Soviets. The Syrians had the most effective military, would have to play a key role in any Middle Eastern peace process, and was relatively invulnerable to U.S. economic pressures."

Of course some things have changed today. The Soviet Union–"perhaps the most significant deterrent" against attacking Iran and the factor that put attacking Syria out of the question–is no more. And the Middle Eastern peace process is, at the moment anyway, very much on hold. So would a Secretary Gates be amenable to action against Iran and/or Syria? Maybe.

In the years after 1979, many American leaders have tried to do business with Iranian "moderates," and some are calling for this again today. Gates, at least in 1985, was a skeptic that there were any such "moderates" to deal with.

"As the arms deal went along, a central premise of supporters was that there was a 'moderate' faction in Tehran or an 'opposition' worth cultivating. This was the view of the Israelis and it was the view that NSC [the National Security Council] adopted. CIA's Iran experts thought differently, and in the spring of 1985 and consistently thereafter they published analyses acknowledging a faction inside Iran that strictly in terms of internal affairs–especially economic policy–might be called moderate. But there was no such faction when it came to the United States. Toward the United States, they were all radicals. This analysis was presented to [National Security Adviser Bud] McFarlane and the NSC. They chose to believe the Israelis. The notion that there was no CIA intelligence on internal Iranian affairs is incorrect. The intelligence we had was simply inconvenient."

On Libya, Gates sided with Casey in favor of taking action against the Qadhafi regime.

"Some CIA analysts thought that the Reagan administration was making a serious mistake in taking on [Qadhafi] publicly–that they were creating an Arab hero-martyr inasmuch as [Qadhafi] was seen standing up to the incredibly powerful United States. They had a valid point, but it was also true that Libya was an incubus for terrorism and for efforts to destabilize a number of African and Middle Eastern governments. To have ignored all this would have been a mistake, a greater one in my view that responding to his activities."

Only briefly in this 1996 book does Gates refer to the Islamist terrorists who are our chief enemy now. Here is the one reference I found, in his review of CIA conduct over the years:

"Similarly, on occasion, our operations–for example, in Afghanistan–had lingering and dangerous aftereffects. The paramilitary training and weapons we provided, after the conflicts ended, sometimes were put to unwelcome purposes and even used in actions hostile to U.S. interests. We always were conscious of this likelihood and, indeed, had warned policymakers about this possibility during the debate over whether to use Stingers in Afghanistan."

The picture I get of Robert Gates from his book is that of a careful analyst, one who sees American foreign policy as generally and rightly characterized by continuity but one who sees the need for bold changes in response to rapid changes in the world–and doesn't look for answers from the government bureaucracies. He is very much aware that we have dangerous enemies in the world, and he was willing over many years to confront them and try to check their advance.