Gates Led Realist Resurgence in 2007

2007 will likely go down in US history as the year in which the balance of power in the long-running struggle between hawks and realists in the administration of President George W. Bush shifted decisively in favor of the latter.

That shift, which could still be reversed by events or actors not subject to Washington’s direct control, can be credited in part to the manifest failures of policies – particularly in Iraq, elsewhere in the Middle East, and in North Korea – promoted by the coalition of aggressive nationalists, neoconservatives, and Christian Zionists who were empowered by the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The realist resurgence can also be traced to the rise of specific individuals, who took the place of their discredited predecessors in posts between the beginning of Bush’s second term and the end of 2006 when the most important realist of all – Defense Secretary Robert Gates – replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

With Gates heading Washington’s most-powerful foreign-policy bureaucracy, the return to realism, which was already underway – albeit tentatively – as early as 2004, accelerated sharply. By the end of 2007, the administration’s top hawk, Vice President Dick Cheney, looks more isolated than ever.

Gates – a protégé and deputy of former President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, neocon nemesis Brent Scowcroft – effectively cleaned out key Pentagon officials who had either actively supported or excessively deferred to Rumsfeld and Cheney. He replaced them with far more independent-minded and skeptical officers, most importantly the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and the head of the US Central Command, Admiral William Fallon.

To the great frustration of neoconservatives, in particular, both men have spoken out publicly during the past year against the possibility of war with Iran in what sometimes appeared to be a deliberate, Gates-backed effort against the overheated rhetoric of the hawks.

In late September, Fallon denounced what he called "this constant drumbeat of conflict" as "not helpful and not useful." Several weeks later, after Cheney charged that Tehran was directly responsible for the attacks by Shi’ite militias on US soldiers and marines in Iraq, the top brass were the first to suggest that Iran was abiding by a pledge to Baghdad to rein in the militias.

Gates’ influence has not been confined only to the Pentagon. He has also quietly encouraged professionals in other bureaucracies, notably in the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) – where he served as an analyst, and eventually director from 1991 to 1993 – to stand up to perceived pressure from White House hawks.

He played a key role in recommending like-minded policymakers for critical posts, such as Admiral Mike McConnell with whom Gates had worked closely under the elder Bush when McConnell served as chief intelligence officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McConnell was chosen by Bush to serve as Director of National Intelligence (DNI) last January – shortly after Gates took office.

It was McConnell and Gates who reportedly pushed hardest at the White House for last month’s public release of the unclassified summary of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear program.

A consensus judgement of the 16 agencies that make up the US intelligence community – all but a handful of which are based at the Pentagon – the NIE concluded that Tehran had suspended its alleged nuclear-weapons program. in 2003. The NIE findings appear to have greatly diminished – if not dashed – the hawks’ hopes for a US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before the end of Bush’s term if Tehran did not given in to UN demands to freeze its uranium-enrichment program.

Until Gates’ confirmation, realist hopes for a major comeback rested primarily with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who, despite a rhetorical embrace of the democratic messianism promoted by Bush himself, began gingerly pushing the president back toward a more-realist course shortly after succeeding the hapless Colin Powell in early 2005.

Rice prevailed over Cheney in aligning Washington’s position on Iran more closely with its European allies that same year – a move that made her a target for neoconservative commentators who had hoped her leadership would force the State Department bureaucracy to toe the hawks’ line.

She soon found herself blocked – and, at times overwhelmed – by the still- powerful Cheney-Rumsfeld "cabal," as former Powell chief-of-staff Lawrence Wilkerson has called it. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, the White House rejected her concerns about the diplomatic costs of prolonging the conflict out-of-hand.

When it became clear within the administration that Bush himself had become disillusioned with Rumsfeld, Rice – backed by a phalanx of other veterans of the elder Bush’s administration, including his secretary of state, James Baker – urged the president to choose Gates, who had been her boss in Scowcroft’s National Security Council (NSC) almost 20 years ago.

With Rumsfeld out and Gates in, Rice appeared to gain confidence. In February, she bypassed Cheney’s office and the hawkish NSC staff to win Bush’s personal approval for a nuclear deal with North Korea. While hawks – both in and out of the administration – howled about the bargain, the generally leak-prone Pentagon raised no objection, giving rise to suggestions that Gates had been consulted in advance.

Gates’ hand was evident even more strikingly in the Middle East where, within eight months of his confirmation, Rice was able to launch two of the most controversial recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group (ISG) – a Congressionally-mandated, bipartisan task force co-chaired by Baker, on which Gates had served as one of ten members until his nomination in November.

The ISG called on the administration to open direct talks with Iran on stabilizing Iraq and to launch a major new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative to help rehabilitate Washington’s image in the Arab world. Both recommendations constituted direct challenges to the hawks who, even before the group’s report was released, mounted a major media campaign against it.

In spite of Bush’s initial discomfort with both initiatives, the US ambassador in Baghdad began talks with his Iranian counterpart in May and is expected to resume them early next month. And in July, Bush announced a new peace process that he said he hoped would create a Palestinian state by the end of his term, a goal that he reaffirmed at the Annapolis summit just one month ago.

A third ISG recommendation – that the US withdraw its combat forces from Iraq by the spring of 2008 – was rejected by Bush in favor of the "surge" strategy that added approximately 30,000 troops to the 140,000 who were already there at the beginning of this year.

But even in that case, Gates – with considerable help from Pentagon brass increasingly concerned about the impact of the Iraqi deployments on the long-term health of US ground forces – appears to be bending the administration towards his view.

When General David Petraeus – the military’s top commander in Iraq who has become a neocon icon over the past year – said he wanted to maintain troop levels in Iraq after an initial troop reduction to pre-Surge levels by July 2008, Gates insisted that he wanted to continue the drawdown at a rate of roughly 5,000 troops a month through the end of the year. The plan, which he reiterated just last week, would leave a relatively small contingent of combat troops in Iraq by the time a new president is inaugurated in January 2009.

Echoing a July NIE that was also ‘pooh-poohed’ by the hawks, Gates argued recently that al-Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan warrant much more attention than they have received.

While Iraq and Iran have clearly been a major focus of his concerns, Gates has also played a key role in recent months in easing growing tensions with Moscow over Washington’s missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe.

Despite rising concerns within the Pentagon itself over China’s military intentions – notably, its testing of an anti-satellite weapon earlier this year and, more recently, its refusal to permit US naval vessels to dock in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving – Gates has been diplomatic and low-key, in contrast to Rumsfeld who made little secret of his distrust of Beijing.

In both areas, Gates has worked closely with Rice’s State Department on whose behalf he called last month for a sharp increase in funding. In the war on terror, he said "soft power" has to be given much greater priority than it has to date.

If that was not heretical enough for Cheney and his ilk, Gates went further in an interview last week, asserting a perspective that the hawks have long denounced as anathema. "We are in a multipolar world now," he told the Washington Post‘s Jim Hoagland.

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Jim Lobe

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.