Obama's Fateful Choice of Gates
December 1, 2008
Barack Obama may have thought he was going out on a limb – at least with the Democratic “base” – by keeping Bush Family operative Robert Gates on as Defense Secretary, but it turns out that Gates sees himself as doing a favor for the President-elect.
In acceptance comments that were brief and ungrateful, Gates presented himself as making a personal sacrifice to stay on in an Obama administration, doing so only out of his dedication to the troops.
“With a profound sense of personal responsibility to and for our men and women in uniform and their families, I must do my duty as they do theirs,” Gates said Monday with Obama standing stiffly behind him. “How could I do otherwise?”
Gates’s avowed reluctance to stay in a job that some of his long-time supporters lobbied aggressively for him to keep (presumably with Gates’s approval) should have been unnerving to Obama, who ignored pleas from many rank-and-file Democrats to jettison Gates, who is a vocal opponent of a withdrawal timetable from Iraq.
Gates’s implicit complaint that extending his time back on the world stage was a form of personal martyrdom also sounded disingenuous to some of his former CIA colleagues, who knew Gates as a CIA bureaucrat with a burning ambition for power, albeit cloaked in a mild-mannered style.
But Gates seems determined to portray himself as something of a modern-day Cincinnatus, the Roman leader who responded reluctantly to demands that he become dictator at a time of crisis.
In November 2006, when President George W. Bush recruited Gates to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Gates let it be known that his departure from his job as president of Texas A&M was a great personal sacrifice, but that he’d do it for his country.
Now, Gates lets on that he wants to move back to his boyhood home in Washington State, but will stay grudgingly in the international spotlight out of his sense of duty to the troops, whose numbers in Iraq exceed the level that were there when he arrived.
Gates’s protestations about how much he disdains power – and misses jogging with the Aggie cadets or hiking in the Pacific Northwest – sound to some observers like the flip side of the trite resignation excuse from disgraced public officials, that they’re quitting to spend more time with their families.
In this case, Gates insists that he’s foregoing life’s little pleasures for the heavy burden of wielding enormous power.
Yet, from his earliest days at the CIA in the 1960s, Gates was always looking for ways to leapfrog his immediate superiors into higher-level jobs. In the 1980s, his career soared with the help of Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey, who jumped Gates to the top of the analytical division and then to deputy CIA director.
At Casey’s behest, Gates purged the CIA’s Soviet division of analysts who saw a sharp decline for the communist dictatorship and replaced them with pliable bureaucrats who delivered the politically preferred finding of an aggressive Soviet juggernaut.
This massaged CIA analysis of a growing Soviet threat fit with Casey’s political needs of justifying an expensive U.S. military buildup as well as covert military interventions in Third World conflicts, but it wasn’t accurate. In reality, the Soviet empire was crumbling, due to its inefficient economic model and its repressive internal policies.
Though Gates pleased his Reagan administration benefactors, he blinded the CIA to the coming collapse of its chief analytical target, the Soviet Union. According to former top CIA Kremlinologists like Melvin Goodman, Gates was the chief action officer for politicizing the CIA’s analytical division, a problem that echoes to the present day.
Gates got something of a comeuppance when the Iran-Contra scandal broke and his behind-the-scenes role sank his chances of becoming CIA director after Casey’s death in 1987. But Gates’s career was salvaged by President George H.W. Bush, who moved him to the National Security Council in 1989 and nominated him as CIA director in 1991.
Then, with the help of conservative Democratic Sen. David Boren, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Boren’s chief of staff George Tenet, Gates survived contentious hearings at which CIA analysts stepped out of the shadows and fingered Gates for politicizing the intelligence product.
Gates also was implicated in a secret operation to provide military assistance to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, a scandal known as Iraqgate.
However, with Boren and Tenet sweeping matters under the rug, Gates landed his dream job, CIA director, a position he hoped to retain even after his chief protector, George H.W. Bush, lost the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992. Gates reportedly was bitterly disappointed when Clinton dumped him.
Former President Bush threw Gates another career lifeline by helping him land the post of president of Texas A&M. Gates insisted he was happy in his low-profile life in College Station, Texas, that included morning jogs with the cadets. But many Gates watchers believed he was eager to step back onto the world stage.
A Second Chance
Gates finally got that second chance to bask in the political spotlight when he was named as a member of the Iraq Study Group and then was approached by President George W. Bush in early November 2006 to replace Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.
Bush had grown disillusioned with Rumsfeld, who had gone wobbly on the Iraq War and was preparing a memo urging a rapid U.S. troop drawdown. At a private meeting at the ranch in Crawford, Bush got assurances from Gates that he shared Bush’s determination to avoid the specter of defeat.
In Gates, Bush saw someone who would front for an Iraq War escalation or “surge” even if that meant U.S. troops absorbing many more casualties. (More than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since Bush announced the “surge” in January 2007.)
The “surge” escalation, however, would mean that President Bush would leave office in January 2009 without having to accept defeat in Iraq. Currently, U.S. troop levels in Iraq remain about 8,000 higher than they were before the “surge” began, and U.S. commanders say that any security gains have been fragile and reversible.
During the presidential campaign, Gates continued to carry water for President Bush and his favored successor John McCain by arguing against Obama’s plan for a withdrawal timetable from Iraq.
Nevertheless, Gates’s insider Democratic allies urged Obama to retain Gates, apparently reflecting Gates’s desire finally to straddle a Republican turnover to a Democrat and thus burnish his standing as a bipartisan Wise Man. Obama agreed to this recommendation.
However, when Obama heard Gates’s self-aggrandizing acceptance remarks, the President-elect may have had a sudden inkling of Gates’s intense personal ambition – and why so many rank-and-file Democrats and some of Gates’s former CIA colleagues had urged Obama to go in another direction.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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