Robert Gates was wrong on the most important issue he ever faced
By Max Fisher, Washington Post, January 7, 2014
Former defense secretary Robert M. Gates is about to publish a memoir deeply critical of the Obama administration and especially of Vice President Joe Biden. Gates writes of Biden, “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Fair enough. These issues are subjective and difficult. Gates and Biden are known to have clashed frequently, especially over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. And the former-colleague-bashing memoir is a time-honored tradition of senior U.S. officials, particularly when it comes to allocating blame for spectacular policy failures.
Still, if Gates is going to take shots at Biden on this scale, it’s worth asking how Gates would fare under similar scrutiny. I am not appropriately positioned to evaluate Gates’s positions on “every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” But I can tell you how he performed on the single most important one he ever confronted: ending the Cold War. He was, quite simply, dead wrong.
Back in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev took over as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the United States faced a really big dilemma. Gorbachev professed to be a reformer. Should the United States work with him to reduce nuclear weapons, ease the U.S.-Soviet proxy battles that were at that point directly responsible for a number of deadly conflicts around the world and, just maybe, try to end the Cold War? This wasn’t just a major, difficult question: It would turn out to be one of the most important U.S. foreign policy decisions in decades.
President Ronald Reagan eventually came around to the idea that, yes, he could and should work with Gorbachev. He was persuaded by, among others, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who famously said that Gorbachev was a man the West could do business with.
But Reagan had to overcome the fierce opposition of a top CIA Kremlinologist and eventual CIA director named Robert M. Gates, who maintained for years that Gorbachev was no reformer, that he was not to be trusted and that Reagan would be walking into a Soviet ploy.
Quite simply, Gates was wrong, overruled by Reagan, and the world was better off for it. Here is the beginning of Gates’s campaign against Gorbachev, as chronicled in David Hoffman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history, “The Dead Hand,” which shows that Gates actually tried to steer CIA analysis of Gorbachev in such a way as to create congressional pressure against working with the new Soviet leader:
Among the hardliners, Robert Gates, then the deputy CIA director for intelligence, felt that Gorbachev was a tough guy wearing a well-tailored suit. Underneath, he saw trouble, and did not want to be fooled. In the weeks before Gorbachev took power, in February 1985, Gates wrote a memo to one of the CIA’s leading Soviet experts. “I don’t much care for the way we are writing about Gorbachev,” Gates said. “We are losing the thread of what toughness and skill brought him to where he is. This is not some Gary Hart or Lee Iacocca. We have to give the policy-makers a clearer view of the kind of person they may be facing.” Gates said he felt that Gorbachev was the heir to Andropov, the former KGB chief, and to Suslov, the onetime orthodox ideology chief. Thus, Gates said, Gorbachev “could not be all sweetness and light. These had been two of the hardest cases in recent Soviet history. They would not a wimp under their wing.”
The book recounts one episode after another of Gates arguing internally that Gorbachev was not a real reformer, that he was “cut from the old Soviet mold” and acting differently only to fool the U.S. From a series of 1986 CIA briefings that insisted Gorbachev would never challenge the Soviet system and was not entering arms negotiations with the intent of actually giving anything up:
Gates, a longtime Soviet specialist, who also briefed the president, predicted that Gorbachev wasn’t going to be pushed around. “Gorbachev simply intended to outwit Reagan.”
Even when Gorbachev proposed eliminating all nuclear weapons (something he and Reagan later came painfully close to achieving), Gates argued, wrongly, that it was a publicity stunt and “did not change any basic Soviet position.” And on and on.
The point here is not to beat up on Gates. The point is that foreign policy is very, very difficult. Senior policymakers such as Biden and Gates are forced to make enormously tough choices based on data and precedent and rigorous analysis, yes, but also on gut and instinct, because outcomes are often impossible to predict. If Gates wants to filet Biden for being wrong, then that’s his prerogative. But it’s worth remembering that, when it comes to a standard as challenging as “every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” everybody gets some big stuff wrong.