Gates Hearing Has New Urgency
By Robert Parry
December 3, 2006
George W. Bush’s back-of-the-hand to the Baker-Hamilton commission’s Iraq War troop drawdown plan – and the disclosure that Bush ousted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after he sought a major shift in war policy – has given new urgency to the Dec. 5 hearings on Robert M. Gates to be Bush’s new Pentagon chief.
Senators, who were inclined to rubber-stamp Gates’s nomination, may have reason to think twice. Indeed, the evidence now suggests that Washington’s conventional wisdom about Gates as “a realist” clambering onboard to put Bush’s war strategy on a new course was dead wrong. Rather than a sign of a new direction, Bush may have picked Gates as a yes man who will continue the war pretty much as is.
Bush may have enlisted someone to join him, Laura Bush and the dog, Barney, lashed to the mast of the Iraq War as it continues to founder.
Author Bob Woodward reported that Bush told key Republicans in late 2005 that “I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me.” Woodward added that some of his best sources complained that the Bush administration needed “to face realism,” though Bush remained resistant to change. [CBS News “60 Minutes” interview, Oct. 1, 2006]
Instead, Bush appears to have hardened his determination to stay the course in Iraq, even throwing back the word “realism” into the faces of his critics.
In Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 30, Bush said he had no interest in the gradual troop withdrawals that the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission is expected to urge. Bush said American forces would “stay in Iraq to get the job done,” adding “this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever.”
Then, on Dec. 3, the New York Times disclosed that Rumsfeld had written a memo on Nov. 6 – a day before the congressional elections and two days before his forced resignation – calling for a “major adjustment” in Iraq War policy.
“Clearly what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough,” Rumsfeld wrote.
The options that Rumsfeld wanted to consider included “an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases from 55 now to 10 to 15 by April 2007 and to five by July 2007.
Another idea was to commit U.S. forces only to provinces and cities that request the assistance. “Unless they [the local Iraqi governments] cooperate fully, U.S. forces would leave their province,” Rumsfeld wrote.
Proposing a plan similar to one enunciated by Democratic Rep. John Murtha, Rumsfeld suggested that the generals “withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions – cities, patrolling, etc. – and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.”
And in what could be read as an implicit criticism of Bush’s lofty rhetoric about transforming Iraq and the Middle East, Rumsfeld said the administration should “recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) – go minimalist.” [NYT, Dec. 3, 2006]
Though it appears Bush’s recruitment of Gates was already underway when Rumsfeld issued his memo, Bush almost surely was aware of Rumsfeld’s revised thinking when the President offered the job to Gates.
Other evidence that Bush sees Gates as an ally in staying the course surfaced at Bush’s press conference in Jordan on Nov. 30 when he slapped down the phased-withdrawal idea from the commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat.
Bush could have finessed the issue simply by saying he needed time to examine the panel’s still-unpublished recommendations. Instead, he seemed to reject them out of hand, while throwing in the mocking reference to the word, “realism.”
With his public disdain, Bush undercut one of the most appealing arguments for Gates’s nomination – that the former CIA director would inject some fresh thinking into the bloody U.S. military occupation of Iraq.
However, if Bush has ruled out a significant policy shift and still wants Gates to be his man at the Pentagon, then either Gates has bought into Bush’s vision of an open-ended war or he will almost certainly fail as Defense Secretary.
Either way, the Senate Armed Services Committee might want to use the Gates confirmation hearings on Dec. 5 to review not only Gates’s fitness for the job but Bush’s strategies for waging what some administration supporters call the “Long War” and others have labeled “World War III.”
Plus, as Defense Secretary not only would Gates be in charge of managing the Iraq War and the broader “war on terror” but he would oversee the National Security Agency’s electronic spying operations and the new military tribunals which amount to a parallel legal structure existing outside U.S. constitutional safeguards.
In all these areas, Bush has resisted any meaningful congressional oversight – and is likely to continue asserting executive secrecy when the Democrats try to conduct informational hearings after taking control of Congress in January.
The Bush administration has made clear it won’t submit to congressional subpoenas if it considers the information privileged or overly sensitive.
Thus, it makes sense for Bush to push through Gates’s confirmation during the lame-duck session when the Republicans are still in charge. Quick confirmation would deny the Democrats one of their few pressure points – approval of Gates – that they could use to extract some cooperation from the White House in the planned oversight hearings.
Once Bush secures the Senate’s consent on Gates, the only practical moves left to Congress – besides time-consuming subpoena battles fought through the federal courts – will be withholding money from the war effort or impeachment – two drastic steps that the Democrats have signaled they won’t do.
In other words, Bush will be in a much stronger position to continue his war policies, while making the Democrats look weak and ineffectual as they flail about in 2007 seeking his cooperation on hearings.
As for Gates at the Pentagon, the Democrats will be left with only hope that he will turn out to be more independent and courageous than he has been in the past.
After Bush tapped Gates to replace Rumsfeld on Nov. 8, the Washington press corps quickly adopted a conventional wisdom that the Gates nomination represented a move by former President George H.W. Bush to impose some reason and discipline on his headstrong son.
The thinking went that Gates would guide the younger George Bush away from the neoconservative ideologues who were gung-ho for war in Iraq and back toward the so-called “realists” who held the upper hand under the elder George Bush – the likes of James Baker.
There was even a Newsweek cover illustrating this thesis with a large Poppy Bush in the foreground and a smaller Sonny Bush in the rear.
But the truth now appears to be different, with George W. Bush virtually spitting out his contempt for the “realists” during his press conference in Amman, declaring that the notion of a “graceful exit” had “no realism to it whatsoever.”
Given Bush’s petulance, it’s hard to conceive that he sat down with Gates just before the Nov. 7 elections and didn’t get assurances that Gates would fall into line behind Bush’s oft-stated determination to see the Iraq War through to what the President calls “victory.”
In other words, the smooth-talking Gates might be presenting himself to Senate Democrats and other Iraq War skeptics as their closet ally when, in truth, he is a closet ally of the neocons.
Throughout his career, the 63-year-old Gates often has acted the part of the mild-mannered moderate – the aw-shucks Eagle Scout from Wichita, Kansas – but then did the bidding of his hard-line bosses in the Executive Branch.
According to rank-and-file CIA officers who knew him well, Gates cloaked his fierce ambition in his boyish charm as he ingratiated himself to powerful mentors, such as the late CIA Director William J. Casey.
For instance, while head of the CIA’s analytical division and responsible for maintaining a clear line between intelligence and policymaking, Gates pushed dubious intelligence assessments on Nicaragua, the Soviet Union and Iran. Invariably, these intelligence judgments served the interests of Gates’s superiors.
In December 1984, Gates even veered off into policy prescriptions, sending a secret memo to CIA Director Casey that took extreme positions on the conflict in Nicaragua, including calls for air strikes and other actions to oust the “Marxist-Leninist” regime – just the kind of tough talk that Casey liked to hear.
Not only did Gates’s behavior violate the principle of separating intelligence from policymaking, but it turned out that his alarmist assessment of Nicaragua was completely wrong. Rather than becoming a permanent “Marxist-Leninist” regime on the American mainland, the ruling Sandinistas surrendered power when they lost an election in 1990.
To some at CIA, it was never clear whether Gates was a closet true-believer in right-wing policies or a skillful apple-polisher eager to please his bosses. But Gates’s bureaucratic maneuvering did serve his career well, as Casey elevated Gates in 1986 to be deputy CIA director. [For more on the Nicaragua memo, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Trust Robert Gates on Iraq?”]
However, after the Iran-Contra scandal broke in late 1986 – revealing widespread deception by the Reagan administration – Gates found himself in hot water. Members of Congress suspected that Gates had misled them and he was denied the top CIA job in 1987 after Casey’s death from brain cancer.
Gates salvaged his career with the help of the senior George Bush who took Gates on as deputy national security adviser in 1989. By 1991, after the Iran-Contra scandal had cooled, Bush nominated Gates again to be CIA director.
This time, Gates’s nomination faced an extraordinary uprising among CIA analysts who went public to accuse Gates of politicizing the analytical division and shaping the intelligence to fit the desires of the Reagan-Bush political team.
There were also new allegations that Gates had skirted the law by joining Casey and other Republican politicians in questionable arms deals with Iran and Iraq. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret World of Robert Gates.”]
Friends in High Places
But Gates survived these allegations with the help of his friend, Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren, and Boren’s top aide George Tenet, who combined to shepherd the nomination through to approval.
Once ensconced at CIA, Gates was in position to protect George H.W. Bush’s flanks when the Iran-Contra scandal heated up again and special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh brought charges against CIA officers implicated in the arms-for-hostage deals.
Though Gates escaped indictment in the Iran-Contra scandal, he was widely viewed as a Bush loyalist prone to trim the truth. After Bush lost the 1992 election, President Bill Clinton replaced Gates at CIA, sending the ambitious intelligence bureaucrat into almost 14 years of political exile.
With the support of George H.W. Bush, Gates did land a job as president of Texas A&M, where Gates bided his time for a return to the power centers of Washington. That opportunity finally presented itself in 2006 when President George W. Bush named Gates as a member of a bipartisan commission created by Congress to review the Iraq War.
Though Rumsfeld had become a lightning rod for criticism across the political spectrum – from Democrats to retired generals to neoconservatives who felt he had botched their Middle East vision – Bush insisted during Campaign 2006 that Rumsfeld would finish out the administration’s final two years.
However, on the weekend before the Nov. 7 elections, facing voter repudiation of the Iraq War and the prospect of Democratic congressional control, Bush secretly reversed himself on his endorsement of Rumsfeld’s continued tenure. Bush privately turned to Gates and asked him to be Rumsfeld’s successor.
The day after the Republicans lost control of the Congress, Bush announced that Rumsfeld was out and Gates was in. Though Bush took some heat for lying about Rumsfeld’s continued service, the Gates move met with widespread acclaim from Official Washington, which assumed that Gates would rein in Bush’s zealotry.
One of the few contrarians to this conventional wisdom was right-wing pundit Fred Barnes, who reported in the neoconservative Weekly Standard that “rarely has the press gotten a story so wrong.”
According to Barnes, Gates “is not the point man for a boarding party of former national security officials from the elder President Bush’s administration taking over defense and foreign policy in his son’s administration.”
Barnes reported that the younger George Bush didn’t consult either his father or Baker about appointing Gates – and only picked the ex-CIA chief after a two-hour face-to-face meeting at which Bush sought assurances that Gates was onboard with the neoconservative notion about “democracy promotion” in the Middle East.
"Two days before the election, the President summoned Gates to his ranch near Waco, Texas,” Barnes wrote. “It was the first time they’d talked about the Pentagon position. … It was only the two of them. No aides participated in the meeting.
"The President wanted ‘clarity’ on Gates’s views, especially on Iraq and the pursuit of democracy. He asked if Gates shared the goal of victory in Iraq and would be determined to pursue it aggressively as defense chief.
"He asked if Gates agreed democracy should be the aim of American foreign policy and not merely the stability of pro-American regimes, notably in the Middle East. Bush also wanted to know Gates’s ‘philosophy’ of America’s role in the world, an aide says, and his take on the pitfalls America faces. ‘The President got good vibes,’ according to the Bush official." [The Weekly Standard, Nov. 27, 2006]
The Barnes account takes on new significance with Bush’s Nov. 30 repudiation of the Baker-Hamilton troop drawdown plan and the disclosure of Rumsfeld’s desire for a “minimalist” U.S. goal in Iraq. The content of that Bush-Gates meeting becomes crucial for understanding how Gates will conduct the Iraq War and Bush’s broader war strategies.
The new evidence also puts greater responsibility on the Senate Armed Services Committee to conduct vigorous confirmation hearings of Robert M. Gates.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'