Gates to the Pentagon

The nomination of Robert Gates, former Director of Central Intelligence during the George H. W. Bush (Bush I) administration and current member of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq policy team and, simultaneously, president of Texas A&M University, to replace the displaced (and disgraced) Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense has set up what appears to be the first major confrontation between Democrats, newly confident after their resounding electoral victory ( the “thumping”) in the congressional elections of last week and the limping lame duck Bush administration.

Gates’ supporters present him as an experienced Washington insider (which he undeniably is) and a skilled administrator (on which subject there is some debate) as well as a pragmatic, non-ideological bureaucrat without any particular political or policy agenda who will make sure the Department of Defense, while responding to the direction of the commander-in-chief president, also adheres to the budgetary and legislative direction of the Congress, and, at the same time, listens both to the advice and counsel of the senior military leadership-i.e., the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as field commanders-and respects the intelligence provided by the intelligence community, all these in contrast to the alleged practices of the departed Rumsfeld.

Not only that, the Gates backers argue, the fact that Gates was not only an appointee as DCI of Bush I but that he is currently with the Bush I-era “wise men” on the Baker-Hamilton committee, has no baggage associated with the Rumsfeld manipulation of intelligence during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and has no history of ignoring the military leadership’s advice and warnings. Moreover, during the inevitable investigations the new Democratic Congress will carry out about questionable Defense Department practices-especially in the letting and supervision of military contractors-Gates, without the aforesaid Rumsfeld baggage-can be assumed to be more forthcoming. Thus, he can undertake his new responsibilities with a relatively clean slate and do his part in changing the US national security change of course according to the expected advice of the Baker-Hamilton “adults.”

On the other hand, Gates, inevitably, given his long history as a national security insider, does not lack for detractors. Most of these are, in fact, former colleagues in the Central Intelligence Agency, where Gates spent over 30 years, mostly as a Soviet analyst, prior to becoming, successively, the head of the CIA’s analytic division-the Directorate of Intelligence-and then Deputy Director of the CIA under William Casey in the 1980s. These were the years of Iran-Contra and the determined Reagan administration effort to shake off the so-called Vietnam Syndrome national reluctance to plunge into further overseas military adventures by rekindling the Soviet menace.

Gates was a more than willing assistant to Casey in that endeavor. The fact that the CIA was later embarrassed by its failure to consider, let alone predict, the collapse of the Soviet Union by the end of the 1980s, was, critics like CIA senior analyst Melvin Goodman and the very experienced and respected National Intelligence Officer at Large, Harold Ford, charged during the 1991 confirmation hearings which narrowly approved Gates as DCI, was due to the suppression by Gates of solid intelligence analysis showing the rapid decline of not only Soviet power but of the validity of its political system. Another Agency witness against Gates during those hearings was the last CIA station chief in Saigon, the veteran Thomas Polgar who delivered his unqualified opinion that a man as dishonest as he believed Gates was could not and should not serve as DCI.

Indeed, as retired CIA senior analyst, Ray McGovern, who once supervised the fledgling Soviet analyst Gates during the latter’s early years in the Agency, believes it was during the Casey-Gates era of the 1980s and 90’s that the US intelligence process-never really free from political influence during its history-essentially abandoned any real commitment to professional objectivity and became completely politicized. It was, claim McGovern and Goodman, the senior intelligence managers who rose to the top during Gates’ time as director who willingly cooperated with the neocons placed in the special intelligence offices established in Rumsfeld’s and Vice-President Richard Cheney’s offices in cooking the “intelligence” used to rationalize the 2002 decision to invade Iraq.

Thus, they argue against the Gates nomination, in terms reminiscent of the extraordinary 1991 hearings where Gates’ denials of having knowledge of both the arms for hostages dealings with Iran or the provisioning of the Iraq armed forces during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s were sarcastically described by Harold Ford as “clever.” Indeed, Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh had only reluctantly concluded that the evidence of deliberately misleading his investigators he had against Gates was insufficient to charge him. Nor is it entirely forgotten that in the uproar over Iran-Contra and after the 1985 death of DCI William Casey, the Reagan administration had to withdraw Gates’s first nomination to the DCI post. He was then much too hot to handle.

Needless to say, such views are not shared by the current President Bush. Nor, were they those of his father who, as was his wont, delighted in pushing the appointments of those he saw as loyal to him, despite, or, indeed, because of, their controversial nature. Both Bushes, by the way, have entrusted their presidential papers to the custody of Texas A&M of which, as noted, Gates is president. Bush II is hoping that the confirmation process of the man he describes as deserving of the secretaryship will go smoothly during the lame duck congress and not be delayed until the new, Democratic congress takes over in January.

It seems reasonable to expect that the forthcoming hearing on the Gates nomination will not take place until after Thanksgiving and that they will serve to introduce the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Commission on which Gates serves. Certainly, questions about those recommendations will be central to the hearings.

There certainly will be strong Democratic opposition to Gates’ confirmation. California’s senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has already announced that she will not vote for him. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, a longtime foe of Gates going back to 1991, will certainly ask difficult questions but has indicated that he has an open mind on the nomination. Odds are, though, that after what should be an ugly hearing in which the scabs from many old wounds will be torn off, the Senate Armed Services Committee will recommend approval, and the still Republican-dominated Senate will vote that Gates be appointed.

The Democrats, of course, will demand, and get, something in return for their acquiescence. Most likely the bone thrown to them will be John Bolton, current interim holder of the post of US Ambassador to the United Nations. The to say the least controversial Bolton who has been leading the US charge against Iran at the UN will get only half-hearted and formal backing from the White House for either confirming or somehow extending his appointment. This will not be enough to keep him in his post, a denoument that the vast majority of the ambassadors to the UN will welcome with great relief.

Incidentally, if the 1991 hearings are any indication the floor vote on Gates will be far from unanimous. At that time 31 senators voted against Gates as DCI, an unsurpassed record for opposition to a committee-approved candidate for that post.

Assuming that Gates is approved, he will be, like the rest of the Bush administration in lame duck status. Assuming, further, that during 2007 and 2008, per the anticipated Bush-Hamilton recommendations and the pressure of a Democrat-controlled Congress, the Iraq “course” is changed and a process of US military withdrawal is carried out, it will be Gates who will preside over that. In a sense, Gates will be in something like the position of his 1993 successor as DCI, James Woolsey. Woolsey, as a staunch conservative (even an embryonic neocon) was known as the Republicans’ favorite Democrat. His job, in the Clinton administration, was to carry out the reduction in size, budget, and mission of the post-Cold War intelligence establishment which, albeit reluctantly, he obediently did.

We can expect, or at least, allow for the possibility, that Gates, as Secretary of Defense, will be in charge of pruning back some of the more extravagant activities and pretensions of the Pentagon in a post-Iraq War era and that he is prepared to suffer the slings and arrows that the disappointed neocons, or neocrazies, who had relied on Rumsfeld to advance their project for US world empire or, at least, hegemony will fire at him as he does what his political masters have now agreed is necessary.

DAVID MacMICHAEL, Ph.D. is an ex-Marine Corps captain retired on disability due to Korean War wounds. A former assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon he spent the years 1965 to 1969 in Thailand as a Defense Department consultant on counter-insurgency. From 1981 to 1983 he was a senior estimates officer at the CIA. After leaving he became an outspoken critic of CIA covert actions. Currently, MacMichael is on the steering committee of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.