Two of President Barack Obama’s most acclaimed Cabinet appointments – keeping Republican Defense Secretary Robert Gates and picking former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State – set the risky course that his administration is following toward a military escalation in Afghanistan.
According to a variety of press accounts, Gates and Clinton proved to be a powerful tandem urging a more hawkish approach to the Afghan War and lending crucial political support to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for tens of thousands of additional troops.
Gates and Clinton more than counterbalanced the more dovish recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. military commander in Afghanistan who warned about increasing Afghan government dependence on American forces.
So, as Obama prepares to unveil a plan expected to send about 30,000 more American soldiers to Afghanistan – pushing the U.S. total to about 100,000 or roughly double the size of the U.S. force there when President George W. Bush left office – it looks in retrospect as if the Gates-Clinton appointments a year ago effectively baked in this decision.
Though Washington’s conventional wisdom remains enamored of those two “Team of Rivals” appointments – and especially the bipartisan appeal of the Gates selection – it is increasingly apparent that warnings from the Democratic rank-and-file about the need to make a clean break with Bush-era warmongering carried some real-life wisdom.
Instead, Obama went with war-time “continuity” and bipartisanship in keeping Gates and U.S. Central Command Gen. David Petraeus. By doing so, Obama ensured that the “surge” escalation strategy that Gates and Petraeus sold in Iraq would be repackaged for Afghanistan.
In April, Obama further locked in the escalation by allowing Gates to fire Gen. David McKiernan, as commander in Afghanistan, and replace him with McChrystal, a Petraeus favorite who had led the ruthless “war on terror” special operations under Bush. McKiernan was regarded as insufficiently aggressive and supposedly lacking the charisma and press savvy of Petraeus and McChrystal.
While Obama basked in some praise from neoconservative editorialists for these national security personnel selections – and for dispatching about 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan in the spring – the President was outflanking himself. That is, assuming he really had any serious notion of pursuing a more diplomatic and less militaristic approach to Afghanistan.
McChrystal, the new Afghan-theater commander, next prepared a dire report demanding 40,000 more troops to avert defeat. Reflecting the press savvy of these war hawks, the report was promptly leaked, touching off demands from Republicans and right-wing news outlets that Obama stop “dithering” and give his field commanders what they wanted.
Biden and Eikenberry put up a rear-guard battle against the proposed escalation, but they only seemed to have succeeded in giving Obama enough political space to scale back the troop commitments, which Obama is scheduled to announce in a speech to West Point cadets on Tuesday.
The escalation, which is intended to set the stage for a major U.S. offensive into Taliban-dominated Helmand Province, will surely increase U.S. casualties in Afghanistan – now exceeding 925 dead. The escalation also will drain scarce resources from the U.S. Treasury at a time when Republicans are attacking Obama’s social agenda as too expensive.
So, Obama’s much-hailed political strategy of building a “Team of Rivals” is revealing its dark underbelly: Powerful rivals can maneuver you into a corner that ultimately undermines your goals and promotes their own.
A President still could battle out of the corner, but not without paying a high political price, especially if the rivals engage in strategic leaking to their friends in the press and thus make the President look as bad as possible. Theoretically, a President also could fire these insubordinate rivals, but that would carry severe political costs, too.
The time for making those personnel decisions was really a year ago, before the inauguration. To clean house now – less than a year into his presidency – would prompt serious questions about Obama’s executive judgment.
It also can’t be said that Obama wasn’t warned. Here at Consortiumnews.com, for instance, we ran story after story raising questions about whether Gates, a longtime Bush Family operative known for his behind-the-scenes maneuvering, would end up undermining Obama’s presidency.
Our articles pointed out that Gates has long collaborated with neocons promoting the foreign policies and intelligence strategies that have brought the United States to its present circumstances.
Gates was linked to secret arms sales in the early 1980s to both Iraq and Iran as the two countries fought an eight-year war. However, because Gates had influential friends among Democrats – the likes of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren – as well as Republican allies, investigations into Gates’s roles in the Iran-Contra and Iraqgate scandals faltered. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret World of Robert Gates.”]
Also, as an ambitious CIA bureaucrat in the early 1980s, Gates became CIA Director William Casey’s action officer in breaking down the CIA analytical division’s tradition of providing objective assessments to the President and other senior policymakers.
As Casey’s choice to head that division, Gates purged analysts who wouldn’t go along with the politicization and promoted those who would, a distortion of a core CIA function that has had devastating consequences through this current decade and the disastrous Iraq War.
A Cold War hardliner in the 1980s, Gates particularly punished analysts who resisted the direst assessments about Soviet power and intentions. Analysts who noted the Soviet Union’s rapid decline and Moscow’s desire for negotiations were shunted aside in favor of propagandists who were willing to issue alarmist reports.
Gates may have been singularly responsible for the CIA's failure to detect the collapse of the Soviet Empire from 1989 to 1991. For the prior decade, he was the most senior CIA analyst exaggerating threats that justified massive U.S. military build-ups as well as support for violent guerrilla groups.
For instance, Gates made wildly erroneous predictions about dangers posed by leftist-rule Nicaragua as he espoused policy prescriptions, including the bombing of Nicaragua, that were considered too extreme even by the hawkish Reagan administration.
In a secret Dec. 14, 1984, memorandum to then-CIA Director Casey, Gates ignored many relevant facts that got in the way of his thesis about the need to launch air strikes against Sandinista military targets and to overthrow the supposedly “Marxist-Leninist” regime.
Gates made no mention of the fact that only a month earlier, the Sandinistas had won an election widely praised for its fairness by European and other international observers. But the Reagan administration had pressured pro-U.S. candidate Arturo Cruz into withdrawing when it became clear he would lose – and then denounced the election as a “sham.”
Without assessing whether the Sandinistas had any real commitment to democracy, Gates adopted the Reagan administration’s favored position – that Nicaragua’s elected president Daniel Ortega was, in effect, a Soviet-style dictator.
“The Nicaraguan regime is steadily moving toward consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist government and the establishment of a permanent and well armed ally of the Soviet Union and Cuba on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere,” Gates wrote to Casey.
The Gates assessment, however, turned out to be wrong. Rather than building a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, the Sandinistas competed six years later in a robust presidential election – even allowing the United States to pour in millions of dollars to help elect Washington’s favored candidate, Violeta Chamorro.
The Sandinistas respected the election results, ceding power to Chamorro. The Sandinistas also have competed in subsequent elections with Ortega finally regaining the presidency in the latest election held in November 2006.
In the 1984 memo, Gates also promoted another right-wing canard of the era – that Nicaragua’s procurement of weapons was proof of its aggressive intentions, not an attempt at national self-defense.
Again, Gates ignored significant facts, including a history starting in 1980 of first the right-wing Argentine junta and then the United States financing and training a brutal counterrevolutionary movement, known as the contras.
By 1984, the contras had earned a reputation for rape, torture, murder and terrorism – as they ravaged towns especially along Nicaragua’s northern border. In 1983-84, the CIA also had used the cover of the contra war to plant mines in Nicaragua’s harbors, an operation later condemned by the World Court.
But Gates offered none of this context in his five-page memo to Casey, who was a strong advocate of the contra cause. The memo made no serious analytical attempt to gauge whether Nicaragua – the target of aggression by a nearby superpower, the United States – might have been trying to build up forces to deter more direct U.S. intervention.
Instead, Gates told his boss what he wanted to hear. “The Soviets and Cubans are turning Nicaragua into an armed camp with military forces far beyond its defensive needs and in a position to intimidate and coerce its neighbors,” Gates wrote.
After laying out his premises, Gates moved to his conclusion – that there was no hope the Sandinistas would accept democracy, even if the contras remained in the field, and thus there was no choice but to oust the Sandinistas by force. Gates wrote:
“It seems to me that the only way that we can prevent disaster in Central America is to acknowledge openly what some have argued privately: that the existence of a Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua closely allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba is unacceptable to the United States and that the United States will do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out.
“Hopes of causing the regime to reform itself for a more pluralistic government are essentially silly and hopeless. Moreover, few believe that all those weapons and the more to come are only for defense purposes.”
Dressing up his recommendations as hardheaded realism, Gates added:
“Once you accept that ridding the Continent of this regime is important to our national interest and must be our primary objective, the issue then becomes a stark one. You either acknowledge that you are willing to take all necessary measures (short of military invasion) to bring down that regime or you admit that you do not have the will to do anything about the problem and you make the best deal you can.
“Casting aside all fictions, it is the latter course we are on. ... Any negotiated agreement simply will offer a cover for the consolidation of the regime and two or three years from now we will be in considerably worse shape than we are now.”
Gates then called for withdrawing diplomatic recognition of the Nicaraguan government, backing a government-in-exile, imposing an economic embargo on exports and imports “to maximize the economic dislocation of the regime,” and launching “air strikes to destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua’s military buildup (focusing particularly on the tanks and the helicopters).”
In the memo, Gates depicted those who would do less as weaklings and fools, including some administration officials who favored focusing on arranging new covert aid to the contras.
“These are hard measures,” Gates wrote about his recommendations. “They probably are politically unacceptable. But it is time to stop fooling ourselves about what is going to happen in Central America. Putting our heads in the sand will not prevent the events that I outlined at the beginning of this note. ...
“The fact is that the Western Hemisphere is the sphere of influence of the United States. If we have decided totally to abandon the Monroe Doctrine, if in the 1980’s taking strong actions to protect our interests despite the hail of criticism is too difficult, then we ought to save political capital in Washington, acknowledge our helplessness and stop wasting everybody’s time.”
Despite Gates’s history – as either an opportunist or an extremist depending on whether you think he actually believed his own words or was just currying favor with his boss – he has been embraced as something of a new Wise Man in today’s Washington, a favorite of the city’s insider press corps.
After Obama won in November 2008, some of Obama's clever aides pushed the President-elect to retain Gates as a signal of Obama’s sincere desire for bipartisanship. Similarly, Obama reached out to his chief Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, whose hard line in the Middle East made her a Democrat acceptable to Washington’s influential neocon community.
The Washington press corps fell in love with this narrative based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a book about how Abraham Lincoln assembled his Cabinet. The incoming Obama administration and top Democrats turned a deaf ear to outsiders who warned about the practical consequences of following such a route in modern Washington.
There was always the danger that these powerful “rivals” would fill key staff positions with subordinates who didn’t share the new President’s goals and then essentially hijack a sensitive policy decision.
That situation appears to have arrived as Obama finds himself caged in by war hawks – Gates, Petraeus, McChrystal and Clinton – determined to escalate the war in Afghanistan.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on November 30, 2009.