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Robert Gates: A ‘Fresh Perspective’

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
November 9, 2006

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The announcement of Robert M. Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary has brought a great gust of anticipation in Washington about a new approach on Iraq. President Bush said after announcing Gates’ nomination that a “fresh perspective” on Iraq was important, and his choice was immediately lauded by a number of erstwhile administration critics. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman said the arrival of Gates, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the administration of Bush’s father, coupled with the role of former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III in the Iraq Study Group “means the pragmatists have won the battle for the president’s attention.” Slate analyst Fred Kaplan sharply contrasted Gates with Rumsfeld, calling him an “utterly uncontroversial figure to calm nerves, settle bureaucratic hostilities, and reestablish credibility on Capitol Hill.”

But others cautioned against expecting too much in the change of congressional power and one cabinet post. CFR Senior Fellow Charles A. Kupchan and University of Texas professor Peter L. Trubowitz stress that Bush still holds the foreign policy reins and “there will be more continuity than change (LAT); the ideological excesses of the Bush era are not yet behind us.” As for Gates himself, some reports recalled his tough Senate confirmation hearing for the CIA post in 1991. He was grilled about his knowledge of the Iran-Contra Affair, in which some Reagan administration officials arranged for the sale of weapons to Iran and sent the funds to Nicaraguan rebels. Gary G. Sick, a former National Security Council expert on Iran who applauds Gates’ choice to lead the Pentagon, says Gates was aware of the arms deals to Iran aimed at helping the Contras. “He made it clear that he was aware of it, though there was some dispute about when he learned about it,” Sick tells CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman. Gates rose through the ranks of the CIA as a Soviet analyst but has been criticized as being incapable of speaking “truth to power” during the Reagan administration and having exaggerated some of the threats (NYT) posed by the Soviet Union at the time. Gates has said that from the 1970s on, the CIA was under steady criticism from the left and right in America about how it gauged the Soviet threat and has called the agency’s failures during the Cold War “remarkably few and far between” (NPR).

News reports following the announcement were filled with praise for Gates’ managerial ability and skill as a consensus builder at a pivotal time for the administration’s Iraq campaign. Fritz W. Ermath, who chaired the National Intelligence Council when Gates headed the CIA, said he will be especially good at working with the sprawling U.S. intelligence system, adding, “Frankly, if he’d have been secretary of defense in 2003, I guarantee you there’d have been a backup plan that would have avoided or certainly minimized the problems that we’ve had since” (National Interest Online).

Of particular interest is Gates’ role as cochair of the CFR Task Force on Iran, which in 2004 called for selective engagement with Iranian leaders and dropping the rhetoric of regime change. The report calls for Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons programs and support for terrorists but adds, “These demands should not constitute preconditions for dialogue.” Commentaries through the years emphasize Gates’ views as a pragmatist, although he’d probably like a do-over on a 2003 interview with CNN in which he described the replacement of Saddam as a “manageable task” (WSJ). In 2004, Gates had a more nuanced view of Iraq, telling CFR.org’s Gwertzman the outcome there was a mystery.

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