Robert Gates’ “Exercise In Power”: A Disingenuous Exercise in Public Relations

Photograph Source: CHERIE A. THURLBY – U.S. Department of Defense – Public Domain

Robert M. Gates’ “Exercise in Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World” makes a strong case for the importance of greater use of economic and other non-military tools of U.S. statecraft and acknowledges the over reliance on the military instrument.  Gates does not address, however, the preponderance of our military power: bloated defense spending; the retreat from arms control; and the imbalance in military-civilian relations that allows the military to dominate the national security dialogue.  In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union,  U.S. presidents decided to pursue U.S. military superiority over any combination of adversaries rather than conduct a strategic dialogue to solve geopolitical problems.

Gates particularly ignores the importance of arms control as a central step toward demilitarization.  He correctly deplores President Bill Clinton’s decision to abolish the United States Information Service (USIS) and weaken the Agency for International Development (AID), but ignores Clinton’s dissolution of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA).  ACDA was the professional home of the arms control community, and the key to disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union.  Currently, there is no comparable group within the government.

The dissolution of ACDA weakened civilian influence in national security policy, another serious problem that Gates does not address.  The dissolution of USIS hampered strategic communication on behalf of U.S. interests, leaving the shaping of foreign perceptions of U.S. policy to the military.  U.S. military commanders have more regional influence than U.S. ambassadors and assistant secretaries of state.  Moreover, the U.S. Agency for Global Media is in the hands of a polemicist who has already removed the heads of Middle East Broadcasting; Radio Free Asia; Radio Free Europe/Liberty; and the Open Technology Fund.

Gates is critical of the Congress for ceding “its powers in foreign policy to the executive branch,” but ignores the bipartisan Cooperative Threat Reduction Program orchestrated by Senators Sam Nunn (D-GE) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).  When the administration of President George H.W. Bush had no policy response to the nuclear weapons that were deployed and stored in former Soviet republics outside of Russia, Nunn and Lugar stepped in to use funds from the Pentagon to deal with the problem of “loose nukes.”  This was a model for bipartisan congressional involvement that was resisted by the White House and the Pentagon.

In sidestepping the preponderance of U.S. military power, Gates fails to address our bloated defense budgets, which he abetted as secretary of defense from 2006-2011.  He doesn’t address the intense operational tempo of the military that relies on too many foreign bases and facilities.  James Madison warned that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual war,” a condition facing the United States.

In fact, Gates resigned from the Defense Department when President Barack Obama endorsed a smaller and less omnipresent military. Gates’ exact words are important: “A smaller military will be able to go to fewer places and do fewer things.  I can’t imagine being part of a nation, part of a government…that’s being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement….”  A decade later, Gates is still unprepared to reduce our international commitments.

As secretary of defense, Gates pursued greater defense spending and consistently lobbied the Congress for modernization of key systems.  When all aspects of U.S. military spending are tabulated, including the funding for the intelligence community, the Department of Energy (nuclear weapons), the Department of Homeland Security (the Coast Guard), and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the United States spends far more than $1 trillion annually on defense.  This exceeds the spending of the entire international community on defense, and Gates shows no interest in cutting back.


Gates’ discussion of the Middle East, particularly the Iraq War, is fundamentally flawed.  He points to the non-military instruments of power as being “unequal to the circumstances,” but it was the use of military force that created the regional instability that dominates the Middle East.  In his most bizarre observation, Gates argues that Iraq has the “only Arab working democracy in the region,” and that Bush’s “original vision has been at least partially vindicated.” (The so-called democratic vision for Iraq and the Middle East belonged to Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; no one else in the administration shared it.) Gates wrongly labeled the war a “preventive” war.


Gates maintains that the CIA never “slants analysis on sensitive subjects to be supportive of presidential politics,” but that is exactly what Gates did for President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and what CIA director George Tenet did for Bush in 2002-2003.  Gates argues that the notion Bush “lied about Iraqi WMD” to “justify going to war is dead wrong.”  Gates, like all key members of the Bush administration, claims that U.S. intelligence agencies were “simply in error.”  Well, Gates is simply dead wrong!  Of course, he can’t criticize the Bush family because they rehabilitated Gates’ career with appointments to the CIA in 1991, Texas A&M University in 1999, and the Department of Defense in 2006.

Gates fails to understand the current problems with Russia because he distorts the 1990 understanding between Secretary of State James Baker and his Soviet counterpart.  Baker told Eduard Shevardnadze that the United States would not “leap frog” over a reunified Germany to enter East Europe if the Soviets removed their 380,000 troops from East Germany.  When Presidents Clinton and Bush expanded NATO, they betrayed that commitment.  Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anger toward the United States stems from U.S. presidents taking advantage of Russian weakness from 1991 to 2002.

What Bob Gates and John Bolton—as well as Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright for that matter—don’t understand about the international environment is that the people of Central America—and Eastern Europe for that matter—would prefer not to be superpower pawns.  The United States took the original principles of the Monroe Doctrine to block foreign intervention and substituted a hegemonic principle for intervention throughout the Western Hemisphere.  Thirty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we are still waging Cold War struggles in irrelevant places such as Afghanistan and Iraq where we have no vital interests at stake.


Gates was part of the foreign policy community that urged military intervention in Nicaragua and Libya in the 1980s; Bolton still wants regime change in Iran and North Korea; Clinton’s policy of regime change in Libya has created total chaos; and Albright’s excuse for this militarism is revealing: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America.  We are the indispensable nation.  We stand tall.  We see further into the future.”

Gates carries too much Cold War baggage to deal with the solutions to militarization.  He was an anti-Soviet ideologue, which explains his failure to understand the impact of Mikhail Gorbachev and the decline of the Soviet Union.  Gates ridiculed his intelligence analysts who were spot-on regarding both counts.  In “Exercise of Power,” he takes credit for recommending to Bush on “my second day as secretary of defense” that the United States deploy long-range missile interceptors in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic to “counter the Iranian missile threat to Europe.”  Gates dismissed the idea that Russia perceived this as “encirclement,” which it was, and employed the argument of the Iranian threat to southern Europe, which didn’t exist.

There is a great deal of Cold War thinking in Gates’ book, and some of his observations are classic.  Gates described Russia’s pursuit of investment in Venezuela’s oil industry as the “chance to distract the United States in its own backyard.”   Gates dismisses Putin’s criticism of the expansion of NATO; the U.S. missile defense in East Europe; and the deployment of frontline NATO troops on the Russian border as a “jeremiad.”  He adds that Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman were in agreement—three more Cold Warriors.

Gates still believes in the exceptionalism of America, which puts all of us at risk.  When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933, he told a group of close advisers that the United States needed a new vision of security, that we were “trapped in the ice of our own indifference.”  Gates’ book is an excellent example of U.S. indifference.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for