George Shultz’s Character Study of Robert Gates

Photograph Source: Schumacher, Karl H., Photographer (NARA record: 8451339) – Public Domain

George Shultz, one of our finest public servants, died last week at the age of 100. He held multiple high-level positions in Washington and, unlike most public servants, left a huge footprint wherever he served. As chief of the Office of Management and Budget, he made sure that the Nixon administration respected the importance of diversity and racial fairness; as Secretary of Labor, he established one of the government’s first affirmative action plans for minority employment at federally subsidized construction programs; as Secretary of the Treasury, he led the efforts of the Nixon administration to stabilize the international economy; and as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, he contributed to ending the Cold War between Moscow and Washington and enhancing arms control and disarmament.

Shultz was almost singularly responsible for convincing President Ronald Reagan that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev wanted detente and arms control with the United States. Shultz had to maneuver against William Casey and Robert Gates at the CIA as well as Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and Deputy Secretary Richard Perle, who opposed detente and arms control.  Weinberger and Perle resigned because of the successful negotiation of the Intermediate-forces Nuclear Treaty in 1987.

At the Moscow summit in 1988, it was Shultz who convinced Reagan to take a photo opportunity in Red Square, which all of Reagan’s other advisors opposed.  The Red Square images are an iconic reminder of the success of Soviet-American summitry.  Shultz threatened to resign when Reagan threatened to polygraph senior government officials because of leaks to the press.  Reagan immediately retreated.  If Shultz had threatened to resign in 1986, Reagan might have been spared the policy and political failure of Iran-Contra.

First and foremost, Shultz was a specialist at labor relations; he was an extraordinary negotiator who took the measure of those across the negotiating table.  His memoir (“Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State”) is particularly important and unusual because of his descriptions of his international and domestic opponents.  He fully documents his bitter exchanges with Bob Gates, a Cold War opponent of detente and arms control, who doctored intelligence to support his polemical views.

Shultz’s encounters with Gates were legendary.  Students of government rarely get to read about the policy encounters of high-level officials.  No State Department official has ever blistered a high-ranking CIA official the way Shultz castigated acting CIA director Gates in 1986.  Shultz was trying to lead President Reagan toward detente and arms control with the Soviets, and Casey and Gates did everything they could to block him.  Gates believed that Gorbachev would never “change…and that Gorbachev was simply putting a new face on the same old Soviet approach to the world.”  Shultz knew better because several of us at the CIA were getting intelligence to him that detailed the revolutionary approach of Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze.

In January 1986, Shultz told Gates that he had no “confidence in the intelligence community” and that he “wouldn’t trust anything you guys said about Iran no matter what.”  Shultz charged Gates with “trying to manipulate me” and accused him of trying to create an “alternate State Department with its own strong policy views.”  Shultz conceded that his department made mistakes, but that Gates’ “assaults are almost joyful.”  Shultz’s successor at State, James Baker, had similar problems with Gates and wrote about them in his memoir, “The Politics of Diplomacy.”  Then-Senator Joe Biden also clashed with Gates and voted against his confirmation in 1991.  Gates has never forgotten the ones who challenged, let alone castigated, him.

So Shultz didn’t make the mistake that Ronald Reagan made in nominating Bob Gates to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency; that George H.W. Bush made in naming Gates to be CIA director; that George W. Bush made in naming Gates to be Secretary of Defense; or that Barack Obama made in keeping Gates at the Pentagon.

Gates is particularly infamous for his acts of revisionism, and the obituary for Shultz in the New York Times has an excellent example.  In 1983, excellent Soviet sources detailed a “war scare” in the Kremlin due to aggressive actions and statements from the Reagan administration.  Gates dismissed the concerns of CIA’s Soviet analysts, telling us that the “Soviets were simply crying wolf.”  Nevertheless, we convinced CIA director Casey that the “war scare” was genuine, and Casey took the message to the White House.  As a result, President Reagan toned down his own statements about the Soviet Union as well as his participation in an extensive war game against Soviet forces.  In the obituary for Shultz, however, Gates is quoted as stating that he “didn’t think the Soviets were crying wolf” and seemed to “believe that the situation was very dangerous.”

In his first and unsuccessful effort to received confirmation as CIA director, Gates drew laughter from the Senate intelligence committee when he referred to his boss, William Casey, as a “model” director of the CIA.  There was additional laughter when he stated that he would have resigned from the CIA if he had known about the “off-the-shelf”  capability to run the Iran-Contra operation out of the White House.  Gates has never conceded that he lied about Iran-Contra but, ever the revisionist, he eventually maligned Casey for politicizing intelligence at every opportunity.

Gates referred to the congressional investigation of Iran-Contra as “bureaucratic bullshit” and, in his memoir, argued that he “was no lawyer and didn’t even know if laws had been broken.”  Of course, he had been briefed about Iran-Contra by senior CIA officials as well as the National Security Council’s Oliver North, who was the leading operational official, and that is why the committee made it clear that, in the wake of Reagan’s nomination in 1986, he would not be confirmed. When he was narrowly confirmed five years later, Gates dismissed the acrimonious confirmation hearing simply as a “food fight.”

Gates’ constant criticism of President Biden is another clue to his character and personality.  Biden not only voted against confirming Gates as CIA director in 1991, but he summoned and personally criticized Gates for withholding intelligence from Senate committees in 1992.  Gates uses every opportunity to belittle Biden, including last week on the eve of Biden’s first visit to the Pentagon, when Gates reprised his false charges about Biden’s criticism of the military.  In his memoir, Gates also speciously argued that Biden was wrong about every foreign policy matter he encountered.

Ironically, Biden paved the way for Gates’ greatest achievement as secretary of defense, his role in advancing the mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle.  It was then-Senator Biden who introduced the successful amendment to provide funding for the MRAP more than a month before Gates’ decision.

The day after the Senate intelligence committee eventually confirmed Gates as CIA director, the legendary cartoonist of the Washington Post, Herblock, pictured CIA headquarters with a huge banner proclaiming, “Now under old management.”  Herblock got it, but Bush senior, Bush junior, and even Barack Obama never did.


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