Bob Gates Re-Considered

Bob Gates in the eyes of contemporaneous history likely will be seen as a major factor righting the ship of state so damaged by the Warlord’s extemporaneous tragedy. His measured and quiet judgment exerts true institutional and policy change, helping to create conditions for a new beginning with American engagement with the world. He vindicates Zbig’s comprehensive assessment, working to heal U.S. institutions and long term national interests so wantonly destroyed by Cheney and Rumsfeld, aided and abetted by a hapless General Jello, his Benchpresser and the inept Rice.

Gates is to the Stiftung somewhat of a surprise. We did not expect in late 2008 to be writing an encomium like this. Yet here we are.

He is one of those rare Washington persona; they grow in both perspective and judgment while here. And more so away, in his case during his Texas collegiate interregnum.

His contributions to the Iraq Study Group hinted at this. The Warlord’s surprise appointment offered hope for at least ameliorating the regime’s course. That hope appears vindicated. His outwardly unabtrusive influence offsets so much harm caused by so few in such little time. History may record the details. In the meantime, among his most visible achievements are the most recent: a sober, thoughtful 2008 National Defense Strategy (summarized here) and his support for possible meaningful intelligence reform. He truly acted to help right a damaged ship of state despite a command determined to careen radically to starboard.

Frankly, we confess to be in error. We did not expect the latter development. Internally, it is a rare thing to see a Secretary of Defense put the good of the intelligence community ahead of other institutional loyalties and his current department’s historic role in fragmenting management, especially the paper reforms post 9-11 Commission. The new Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) now for the first time has the potential to give the U.S. what it never had: a strategic vision for the overall community. As you Dear Reader already know, DoD controls so much of the institutional assets and hence budget, a DCI’s alleged role in community management was always fictional. He who controls budgets controls the sinews of government. That is one reason every individual at Langley shrunk back to being the actually non-existent role of Director of the CIA rather than actually managing centralized intelligence. Much remains to be gleaned about the genesis and progression of these changes. That mere fact this development exists at all is a truly welcome sign. (We will revisit other details of the reform at a later date).

In the 1980s many at the Agency, Mel Goodman being only the most public and vocal about it, believed Gates was a wholly owned subsidiary of Casey, Inc. The charge? He allegedly ‘cooked the books’ on Soviet estimates to match the political views of Casey and the White House. We followed that matter closely then as you might imagine. Then and now we believed Goodman et al.’s opinions were heartfelt, based on a narrow silo or viewpoint and also overstated. Many so-called non-politicized Soviet analysts inside and outside government initially were skeptical of Gorbachev’s latent radicalism and random policies (Rice being somewhat especially exceptional because she, Janus-like, allowed anyone she was with to believe that she agreed with them).

Gates is not all that progressives and the netroots hope for. In this one has to offer measured praise should one come from that viewpoint. He executes, for example, Administration’s policies (indeed, as a public servant he is not and would not be insubordinate) such as ballistic missile defense in Eastern Europe. This concept is not inherently flawed or even strategically baseless; its core problem is that is being pursued with potentially conflicting strategic interests without calculated prioritization. To wit, clumsy BMD execution combined with uncoordinated and non-prioritized objectives such NATO expansion, ‘lily pad’ insertion of American presence in Central Asia and promotion of ‘democracy’ in the former Soviet Empire/now Russian ‘Near Abroad. Now add Iran and Russian wealth from oil to the mix. As we wrote over at STSOZ 1.0, history may not have seen such an incoherent hegemon in a long time, if ever.

Gates’ most lasting contribution may be helping to extinguish the abuse of ‘war’ as a psychological tool bludgeoning American consciousness into prostration before ‘authority’ exercised in the name of fear. This development is already unfolding on its own. The change promised by Obama is a course correction. The new National Defense Strategy — as anti-Wolfowitzian as one might imagine — returns a proper perspective about American power and America’s role in the world. Sadly, it comes so late in the game. Our ship of state now may be righting itself. Judicious counter flooding, fire control and a measured return to port for repairs — all salutary. How seaworthy she will be even with repairs? How effective (or diminished) her capability and suasion power? All open questions.

One must wish that Obama will surmount his lack of experience, stature in the eyes of the military, and surround himself with advisors of such judgment and quiet skill. As we wrote before, even should Obama win and execute per above, a ship of state and especially her crew below do not turn on a dime. Even one listing or counter flooding. Or perhaps especially so. In this, Gates’ emphatic public statement that he will not serve past this Administration is noteworthy, understandable and somewhat disappointing. A bi-partisan cabinet would be such a healthy sign. We sincerely hope that with Gates’ legacy, achievements and public service, ‘change’ in this context means continued support for a course well set.