November 08, 2006

Robert Gates, Moderate?

Watching the cable channels this afternoon, everyone seemed to think Robert Gates will make a more "moderate" defense secretary than Donald Rumsfeld, and that President Bush has finally managed to muscle Dick Cheney aside in various intra-administration disputes on foreign policy. I'll believe it when I see it--it's probably way too early to write Cheney's obituary. But here are a few semi-encouraging tidbits: Michael Rubin has complained that Gates, from his perch on the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq, is recommending engagement with Iran. Good. Also, there's this anecdote, courtesy of an old Prospect piece by Jason Vest:
In 1995 the CIA reported in a national intelligence estimate that a nuclear missile threat from a new foreign power was at least 15 years away. At this point, Rumsfeld acolyte Frank Gaffney, Jr., of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), mounted a campaign against the CIA's estimates; with the aid of right-wing congressional Republicans, he successfully pushed for the establishment of an outside group to provide an alternative assessment to the CIA's--in effect, another Team B.

This time, however, the team--headed by ex-CIA Director Robert Gates--essentially concurred with the national intelligence estimate. So Gaffney prevailed upon the minions of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich for yet another assessment. Thus the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States was born, with Donald Rumsfeld as chair. Widely characterized as "bipartisan in its conclusions," the final Rumsfeld commission report was, for all intents and purposes, a Team B redux: The CIA, the report concluded, was wrong, and the very real threat of ICBM attack from a "rogue state" was at most five, not 15, years off. Such an event, said the report, could occur with "little or no warning."
"Gates: Less Wrong than Rumsfeld." I like it. Neoconservatives have long been obsessed with creating "Team B"s--shadow intelligence shops tasked with providing a more alarmist worldview than that on offer by the CIA. During the Ford administration, Cold War hawks created the original Team B, which concluded that the Soviet Union was spending a staggering amount on its military, that the CIA was downplaying the threat, and recommended a corresponding arms increase in the United States. There was only one problem: Their findings were totally wrong. Both Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were associated with that earlier effort.

Years later, of course, Rumsfeld's Pentagon set up its own Team B during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq--the Office of Special Plans, charged with "aggressively questioning" the CIA's assessment of Saddam Hussein's weapons capacities. We know how that turned out. Alarmist intelligence has always been the hallmark of Rumsfeld--and Cheney's--foreign policy. I won't pretend I'll agree with Gates' foreign policy views, and I'm of the old-fashioned opinion that Iran-Contra figures should be permanently discredited rather than welcomed back into government, but at the very least, it's comforting to see that he's somewhat less interested in playing the threat inflation game.

Update: Or... maybe not. Here's a snippet from a 1991 Time profile of Gates:
But those who oppose the Gates nomination say much of the evidence of book cooking is in the reports themselves -- and Gates read and approved all reports issued during his tenure as deputy director. Indeed, the Gates period produced a rash of complaints that, on controversial issues like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Iran, the agency tailored its reports to fit White House policy rather than providing objective conclusions. In the world of intelligence analysis, that is the ultimate sin.
Right, that will teach me to say anything nice about a Bush appointee. He's a bad dude. Big on the Contra war. Big on El Salvador death squads. (In his memoirs he concedes only that the CIA did "cross the line" on a few occasions, page 395.) And he was an opponent of d├ętente with Gorbachev in the late 1980s. But it is still true that he favors direct talks with Iran, as evidenced by this 2004 task force he co-chaired with Zbigniew Brzezinski. A lighter shade of war criminal, I guess.
-- Brad Plumer 3:32 PM || ||