Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Has "Sling-Bob" Gates ALWAYS gotten it wrong?


A quick show of hands: How many of you out there would let "Dr. Gates" so much as look at, let alone touch, your tonsils?

"This combination of elfish charm and sub-par performance goes back a long way."
-- Jonathan Alter, in "The Wars Robert
Gates Got Wrong
," on newyorker.com

by Ken

As we prepare to talk again about Robert "Sling-Bob" Gates, the former director of Central Intelligence and (under both R and D prezzes) secretary of defense, we should perhaps do a quick-refresher quiz on the circumstances under which Sling-Bob made his return to gummint service in 2006, as successor to term-and-a-half Bush-regime Defense Secretary Donald "O Yeah? You and Who Else Is Gonna Indict Me?" Rumsfeld.

Let's say that, hypothetically, you have just been named to a job that was until recently infested by Donald "O Yeah? You and Who Else Is Gonna Indict Me?" Rumsfeld. Perhaps a job more or less like secretary of defense. The general response to your appointment, even if nothing more is known about you, is most likely to be:

(a) "We're sure going to miss Old Rummy."

(b) "Sure, Old Rummy was a pain in the butt, but we have to hope the new guy keeps all those splendid reforms he made at the Pentagon."

(c) "Look, Rummy's a close personal friend, but as long as the new guy isn't a known crackhead, he's a step up. I wouldn't put Old Rummy in charge of a school bake sale."

(d) "Ding-dong, Old Rummy's gone!"

ANSWER: Wouldn't you like to know?
A couple of weeks into the hubbub over the advance publicity about the terible things that Sling-Bob says in his new book about President Obama and Vice President Biden (and at least in the advance publicity no one else, though apparently there are other folks who have bad things said about them in the actual book), I raised the question: "Why on earth would anyone pay any attention to Village hack Bob Gates? (Just 'cause he wrote some crummy book?)" And I suggested that a lot of the "respect" accorded Sling-Bob's performance as defense secretary had to do with his being the "Unrummy."

Among other pungent things the highly respected Sling-Bob says, you'll surely recall, is that Vice President Biden has been "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades wrong about every foreign-policy issue of the last 40 years."To which I would have thought the obvious response would be: "Boy, that butt-covering Sling-Bob sure is full of shit!"

That's even without factoring in the important reminder I cited from people who are more au courant than myself with the ins and outs of Sling-Bob's career. This would be his utter and complete fucking up of the most important question he ever faced in his many long decades of earnest public résumé-building: his savagely scornful dismissal of that Mikhail Gorbachev character as anything new or different in the way of Kremlin leadership. Sling-Bob's sliming emphatically enclosed those nutjob analysts who were saying that -- get this! -- the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse! (Now stop your laughing, boys and girls. Who could have known?)

In approaching Jonathan Alter's reporting, I always try to keep in mind how well plugged in JA is to the hearts and minds of Village people (who are not to be confused with the Village People, who at least provided a modicum of entertainment). So when Jonathan tells us that Sling-Bob is beloved of Village people of both the R and D (but especially the R) varieties, that he "was not a kiss-ass but one of the shrewdest public servants of his generation," well, it's a highly Village-compatible rendering.

To which we need to quickly add a reminder that popularity among Village people rarely has much to do with competence. For our Jonathan, it "helps to explain why [Sling-Bob's] many failures and missed calls have been all but air-brushed out of accounts of his career." Jonathan goes so far as to suggest that the famous "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades" judgment, "as it happens . . . applies rather precisely to Gates himself."

"On first impression," says Jonathan, "Gates is unprepossessing: someone who worked closely with him compared his appearance to 'the guy at P. C. Richards who sold microwave ovens.' "
But upon his return to government in 2006, after a thirteen-year absence, colleagues and even people who had never met him began to think of him as oracular. His nickname in the Obama Administration was "Yoda." Cabinet colleagues, especially Hillary Clinton, who sought peace between State and Defense, listened to him with the ear-cupped deference of actors in the old ad for E. F. Hutton. And yet Gates's experience and wisdom failed to prevent the biggest breach between the President and the military since the Korean War. On Afghanistan, the most internally contentious national-security issue of his tenure, he failed to perform one of the most important parts of his job.

This combination of elfish charm and sub-par performance goes back a long way. Gates was tarnished by the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-nineteen eighties, arguably the worst scandal since Watergate. At the time, he was deputy director of the C.I.A. under William Casey and admitted, in an earlier book, "From the Shadows," that, having been "dealt a lousy hand by the president and Congress, the Agency played it amazingly stupidly." That's putting it mildly. It was under Casey and Gates that the politicizing of intelligence that would prove so ruinous two decades later, in the Iraq War, began. The special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, didn't prosecute Gates but, due to his deep involvement in the fiasco (including his faulty memory of when he learned of the arms-for-hostages deal), the Senate forced Gates to withdraw his nomination for C.I.A. director in 1987. "Did I do enough? Could I have done more?" he asks in "From the Shadows." He answers yes: "I gave myself a C-."

Such winning self-effacement has consistently helped endear Gates to Presidents; four years later, President George H. W. Bush, a good friend, renominated him. Gates got the big job at the C.I.A., but his judgment on the big issues didn't improve. He had received his Ph.D. for studying the Soviet Union, but he managed to miss the signs of its impending demise, calling Mikhail Gorbachev a "phony" and discounting his reforms as meaningless. Whether this was because Gates, a self-described hawk, was too dug into his Cold War views or because he listened too uncritically to misguided C.I.A. analysts -- or some combination -- remains unclear.

The third monumental foreign-policy issue of the last thirty years was the Iraq War. Gates was out of government, in 2003, when George W. Bush decided to go to war, but he acknowledges that he fully supported it. Biden supported the war, too, though at least Biden later admitted that he had been wrong. The conventional wisdom is that Gates, by now back in government, was right to support the 2006 surge in Iraq (and Biden wrong to oppose it), though many analysts now argue about whether it was really the increase in U.S. troops that brought down the level of violence.

President Obama made many of the right decisions -- moving more quickly than some commanders like to end the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy on gays in the military; trimming the defense budget; and raiding Osama bin Laden's compound -- over the objections of his Defense Secretary. On Afghanistan, Obama accepted large parts of Gates's compromise; a surge of thirty thousand troops split the difference between Biden's "counter-terrorism" plan (which featured drones strikes, special forces, and many fewer troops than the Pentagon wanted) and the "counter-insurgency" strategy, which called for forty thousand more troops and many years of nation building, and was favored by General Stanley McChrystal, most other top commanders, and Hillary Clinton. In "Duty," Gates explains at length how he served as broker amid an extremely complex set of policy choices. Right call? Maybe. But in a chapter entitled "A House Divided" he details bitter and personal divisions between the military and the White House over Afghanistan that can hardly be construed as success for a man who was in a position to prevent, or at least ease, them.

Before Obama made his decision about the surge, the Pentagon tried to box him in. McChrystal, the field commander, issued a report, which Gates reveals was leaked to Bob Woodward by McChrystal's staff, saying a ten-year counterinsurgency commitment, costing nearly one trillion dollars, was the only way to go. The general then turned insubordinate after a speech in London, telling the audience that he couldn't support the policy if the President decided in favor of a counter-terrorism plan to use drones and special forces instead of a large contingent of troops of the sort favored by Joe Biden. (McChrystal apologized for that comment and was fired the following year after he and his staff trashed Biden and others to Michael Hastings, a writer for Rolling Stone). The London comments came not long after General David Petraeus, then the head of all military operations in the region, told a conservative columnist that "it won't work if we don't" send a lot more forces. As if that weren't enough, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress that many more troops were needed in Afghanistan.

Gates issued a public statement advising military commanders to give their advice to the President in private, not in public, but Obama was not mollified. The Commander-in-Chief was "livid," Gates writes. "Is it lack of respect for me?" Obama asked. Was it because he was young and hadn't served in the military? I learned, when I was researching my book, "The Promise: President Obama, Year One," that Obama dressed down the brass more sharply than any President had since Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur. The President was so angry that when I interviewed him on-the-record later that fall and asked if he felt publicly "jammed" by the Pentagon before he made his Afghanistan decision, he replied, "I neither confirm nor deny that I've gotten jammed" -- an extraordinary comment for an American President to make about his own administration. Gates writes that he was "seething inside" when Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, complained about the jamming. "I said that if there had been a strategy to do that, they [the brass] sure as hell wouldn't have been so obvious," Gates writes.

This is Gates propping up a straw man. Just because it wasn't a "Seven Days in May" scenario, with officers plotting a military coup, doesn't mean that the military wasn't trying to manipulate the President. They were upset that Obama didn't automatically accept their recommendations, as Bush had. "The Pentagon was used to getting what it wanted," Obama told me at the time. When it didn't, bad feelings arose. "A wall was going up between the military and the president," Gates writes.

In assessing his own mistakes in Afghanistan, Gates notes that his biggest was failing to ride herd over the Marines who, for inter-service turf reasons, initially deployed en masse to the Helmand Province, where many died, instead of to more populous regions, where their efforts would have been better aligned with the overall mission. Reports about Gates's book, though, have made it seem as if Obama's expression of ambivalence about his Afghanistan decision was somehow a strike against him. In truth, any thoughtful President should have reservations and second thoughts about many decisions, especially one at odds with his campaign promise to emphasize nation building at home.

Gates has some complimentary things to say about the President (especially regarding his analytical rigor and his treatment of veterans), but he admits that his anger sometimes clouded his judgment. When Obama, at Biden's suggestion, cast his decision on beginning a withdrawal from Afghanistan, in July of 2011, as a direct order (so that the military couldn't drag its feet), Gates felt insulted. He considered the order unnecessary, unprecedented, and a reflection of how much the White House misunderstood military culture. Only when it came time to write the book did he gain perspective. "My anger and frustration with the White House staff during the process led me to become more protective of the military and a stronger advocate for its position than I should have been," Gates writes. "All of us at the senior-most level did not serve the president well in this process. Our ‘team of rivals' let personal feelings and distrust cloud our perceptions and recommendations."

Gates reports no serious disagreements between the Pentagon and the White House on China, Russia, North Korea, the Middle East, terrorism, or Iran. We won't know for years if the lack of discord on those other national-security issues will improve the batting average of a Secretary of Defense who has set himself up nicely to be overrated by history. We do know that Gates's position on Afghanistan -- the one eventually adopted by the President -- ended up being, in his own words, "pretty close" to Joe Biden's.

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