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A New Direction At Defense

This column was written by David Corn.

Hooray for Robert Gates. Well, almost.

At first glance, the appropriate reaction to George W. Bush's decision to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Gates might be: Here's more of the same; another retread from the Bush I clan with a problematic past. Gates served as CIA Director for the first President Bush in the early 1990s — and did so after contentious nomination hearings aired accusations that Gates had skewed intelligence analysis when he was a senior CIA manager. The allegations were quite serious. Several CIA analysts testified he had "politicized" intelligence reporting by making certain that estimates conformed to the conservative political viewpoints favored by the Reagan White House — most notably, that the Soviet Union was a more threatening adversary.

Gates' accusers, including former CIA division chief Mel Goodman, presented a strong case against him, detailing several instances when Gates pushed Soviet-related intelligence in an ideological direction. Larry Johnson, a onetime CIA analyst, recently recalled,

I remember talking to the South African analyst back in 1988, who told me about the time Bob Gates tried to change the lede on an intelligence piece, which argued that Nelson Mandela was NOT a communist. Gates wanted the lede to say that Mandela was a communist. The analyst kicked back hard and ultimately prevailed, but this behavior was consistent with his reputation as a political animal willing to curry favor with the political masters downtown and sacrifice sound analysis.
After the confirmation hearings, Senator Ernest Hollings, a Democrat, concluded that the "cancer of politicization" had spread in the CIA during the period when Gates was a top deputy to CIA chief William Casey.

Gates' nomination to be CIA head was imperiled by other controversies. He had directly engaged in secret intelligence sharing with Iraq in 1986 that critics claimed was illegal. Gates, who apparently possesses a photographic memory, testified that he could not recall key aspects of the Iran-contra affair. Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat, accused Gates, a career Soviet analyst, of having ignored the changes under way in that country in the late 1980s. "Mr. Gates got it dead wrong," Bradley complained in 1991. Bradley also charged that when Gates was the deputy CIA chief he had neglected the important task of collecting intelligence on Iraq. Despite all this, the Democratic-controlled Senate approved the Gates nomination, and he served as CIA director for fourteen months. (In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Gates to be CIA chief, and then the White House pulled his nomination in the midst of the Iran-contra scandal.)

Considering that he launched a war justified by fraudulent intelligence misrepresented by the White House, the current President Bush might have thought twice before installing at the Pentagon a former intelligence official once accused of cooking intelligence for political reasons. Critics of the administration quickly denounced the Gates-for-Rumsfeld swap, resurrecting the old charges (which I covered extensively at the time). But allow me to offer a limited cheer for Gates.

First off, he's not Donald Rumsfeld. That's a good start. Rummy, the fellow once hailed as a matinee idol for older women who watch C-SPAN, bungled every major decision in the war: how many troops to send (not enough); whether or not to dissolve the Iraqi army (he did); whether or not to mount an extensive de-Baathification campaign (he did); how to respond to the looting and the incipient insurgency in the weeks and months after the invasion (not expeditiously). Of course, Rumsfeld was wrong on the WMD question, and he was wrong to declare before the invasion that the war would last less than six months. His Pentagon was a home to neoconservative war advocates who cherry-picked intelligence data and factoids to craft the false case that Saddam Hussein was in league with al Qaeda. In the years after the invasion, Rumsfeld routinely and falsely claimed the Pentagon was making significant progress in training Iraqi security forces. Looking at his management of the war, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a local weatherman using a Magic Eight Ball could have done better.

Second, Gates is a conservative but a realist; he's no neocon. For instance, he's advocated trying to reach an accommodation with Iran. That impresses Gary Sick, who during the Jimmy Carter years worked on the National Security Council with Gates. Sick points to the fact that in 2004 Gates co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force that urged "a revised strategic approach to Iran" incorporating selective engagement with Tehran. This was a polite slam against the Axis-of-Evil approach of the Bush-Cheney administration. Sick, a critic of the administration and the Iraq war, views the Gates' nomination as a possible indicator that the Bush administration is turning from "neocon ideology to political realism."

Gates, currently the president of Texas A&M University, hasn't said much about the war in Iraq. In May 2005, he did remark, "For better or for worse, we have cast our lot and we need to stay there as long as necessary to get the job done." But he has also proposed a more narrow definition of success than Bush, noting that the United States could leave once there is "a government that can survive and that will be very different from what preceded it."

More important — and this is what's intriguing about the Gates nomination — Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group, a panel chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Representative Lee Hamilton, a Democrat. The bipartisan commission's mission is to assess the situation in Iraq and propose policy options. Baker has already said that he believes a strategic shift is needed in Iraq and that his commission will produce specific recommendations in this regard. (The commission is reportedly considering different versions of disengagement, among other ideas.) Baker picked Gates to be on the commission, presumably with knowledge of Gates' thinking on the subject. Thus, it's no stretch to see Gates as an envoy (or a sleeper agent?) of the commission assigned to (or planted within) the Bush administration. Given other possible choices for the Pentagon job (Joe Lieberman?), it's somewhat heartening that Bush has invited into his Cabinet a non-neocon who has been working with Baker to find a way out of Iraq.

Am I yielding to the bigotry of low expectations? You bet. With the mess in Iraq worsening, I am rooting for Baker — and any mole he manages to place within the administration. There's no telling whether Baker will come up with worthwhile and workable alternatives or whether Bush will actually consider a significant course correction (even one concocted by a stand-in for his father). Bush remains the decider-in-chief — and he has been a stubborn one until now.

Though Gates' past government career was marked by troubling episodes, he is now part of a group — essentially, the adults of the Bush I clan — trying to inject some reality into the stay-the-course mentality of the Bush-Cheney White House. That's something Rumsfeld never did. By Bush standards, this is monumental progress.

By David Corn
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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