November 14, 2006

Key to Gates: Why Rumsfeld’s ousting spells major change

This article originally appeared in The Tribune (Chandigarh) on November 14, 2006.

THE first head rolled even before the Democrats officially seized control of the US Senate. Donald Rumsfeld, the embattled Secretary of Defense, submitted his resignation, or more likely was asked to do so. And while the timing of the announcement came as a surprise, it was a move that both critics and supporters of the Bush administration had been advocating for some years.

Rumsfeld’s second tenure as Defence Secretary was mired in a number of controversies, not least of which were the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse revelations. He is also among those primarily blamed for getting the United States military embroiled in the war in Iraq, rationalizing American actions using the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime and al-Qaeda. Extraordinarily inaccurate intelligence - or worse still, a gross misreading or deliberate fabrication of intelligence material - was employed by Rumsfeld to substantiate these claims.

Which is what makes the choice of Rumsfeld’s successor so significant. Robert Gates served twenty-six continuous years in either the CIA or the National Security Council in various capacities, culminating in his serving as Director of the CIA for a little over a year. He remains the only entry-level employee of the CIA to rise all the way to Director, and is likely to place emphasis on the intelligence-gathering mechanism within the US military set-up, perhaps even overseeing much of it personally. His appointment could be seen as compensation - perhaps even overcompensation - for the Bush Administration’s past intelligence failures.

Gates is also among the few individuals to have served in a senior role in the administration of the elder President George Bush. But unlike Dick Cheney, Gates is perceived as being ideologically close to the realist school of foreign policy thought, espoused by the elder President Bush and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. Under Scowcroft, Gates worked in the National Security Council with Condoleezza Rice. The two also shared a specialisation in the Soviet Union. Therefore, one would logically expect relations between the heads of the State and Defence Departments to thaw, after two years of sometimes public disagreement between Rice and Rumsfeld.

Gates has spent the last twelve years outside government. While his tenure as President of Texas A&M University - one of the largest in the United States - may have prepared him for the gargantuan administrative challenges of heading the Pentagon, it could have also kept him slightly out of touch with the policy and personnel changes that Washington has experienced in the past decade.

However, Gates was recently appointed a member of the Baker Commission, a high-level bipartisan committee appointed by the White House to recommend a strategy for dealing with the war in Iraq. The Commission’s report is due to be released soon, but rumors of its contents suggest that it has recommended, among other things, a consolidated US presence in Baghdad, talks with Syria and Iran to encourage their involvement in Iraq, troop redeployment, and a phased American pullout.

The fact that one of the Commission’s members is to become Secretary of Defence marks a clear indication of how seriously the Bush administration is considering the implementation of some of its recommendations. Gates’ elevation to Defence Secretary therefore signals a tectonic shift for the current US administration’s foreign policies, both in terms of approach and philosophy.

But Gates also brings a lot of baggage. Take, for example, his history with Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1991, his role in providing intelligence to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War - including intelligence that may have been used in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - came to the fore. In addition, Gates himself has admitted that covert American activities in support of Islamic fighters in Afghanistan were a cause, rather than a result, of the Soviet invasion of that country.

It is ironic that it was on Gates’ watch that the two states with which the United States recently became embroiled in war - Baathist Iraq and Talibani Afghanistan - began receiving sustained American support, and that Gates was personally responsible for some of it.

Then there is his mission to the Subcontinent in 1990. During an escalation in tensions between India and Pakistan, the elder President Bush sent Gates to the region. There are contradictory accounts of what he told Islamabad and New Delhi, and wildly differing theories as to why he really came. Indian officials have maintained that he did not come to diffuse a potential war. Others, including the New Yorker magazine’s Seymour Hersch, have claimed that his real agenda was to chastise Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program.

A careful reading of Gates’ vita exposes other weaknesses. In addition to his questionable record on Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates was also tangentially involved in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Gates’ knowledge and possible participation in activities that bordered on illegal could be used by an emboldened Democratic leadership during his confirmation hearings to score a political point or two over the President, even though they could hardly have picked a more favorable candidate themselves.

Ultimately, the sacrifice of Donald Rumsfeld holds much more than symbolic significance. Rumsfeld did not appear to be in synch with the more cautious approach to foreign policy that has marked Bush’s second term, following the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. The emphasis on diplomatic solutions to problems with the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, for example, blatantly contradict Rumsfeld’s decision to stubbornly stay the course in Iraq. It is fitting, therefore that Rumsfeld - a man of action and tough words - is to be replaced by a man who is in many ways his very opposite.