Robert Gates: Wrong Man for the Job

Barack Obama not only had the good judgment to oppose the war in Iraq
but , as he told us earlier this year, "I want to end the mindset that
got us into war." So it is troubling that a man of such good judgment
has asked Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense--and assembled
a national security team of such narrow bandwidth. It is true that
President Obama will set the policy. But this team makes it more
difficult to seize the extraordinary opportunity Obama's election has
offered to reengage the world and reset America's priorities. Maybe
being right about the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history
doesn't mean much inside the Beltway? How else to explain that not a
single top member of Obama's foreign policy/national security team
opposed the war--or the dubious claims leading up to it?

The appointment of Hillary Clinton, who failed to oppose the war, has
worried many. But I am more concerned about Gates. I spent the holiday
weekend reading many of the speeches Hillary Clinton gave in her trips
abroad as First Lady, especially those delivered at the UN Beijing
Women's Conference and the Vital Voices Conferences, and I believe she
will carve out an important role as Secretary of State through elevating
women's (and girl's) rights as human rights. As she said in Belfast in
1998, "Human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human
rights." That is not to diminish her hawkish record on several issues,
but as head of State she is in a position to put diplomacy back at the
center of US foreign policy role--and reduce the Pentagon's.

It's the appointment of Gates which has a dispiriting, stay-the-course
feel to it. Some will argue, and I've engaged in my fair share of such
arguments, that Gates will simply be carrying out Obama's policies and
vision. And a look at history shows that other great reform
Presidents--Lincoln and Roosevelt--brought people into their
cabinets who were old Washington hands or people they believed to be
effective managers. Like Obama, they confronted historic challenges that
compelled (and enabled) them to make fundamental change. But Gates will
undoubtedly help to shape policy and determine which issues are given
priority. And while Gates has denounced "the gutting" of America's "soft
power," he has been vocally opposed to Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan. And
at a time when people like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are calling
for steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons (a position Obama has
adopted), Gates has been calling for a new generation of nuclear

For Obama, who's said he wants to be challenged by his advisors,
wouldn't it have made sense to include at least one person on the
foreign policy/national security team who would challenge him with some
new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century? Isn't the
idea of a broader bandwidth of ideas also at the heart of this ballyhooed
"team of rivals" stuff?

Powerful establishment voices have been quick to praise the continuity,
expertise and competence of Obama's team. But if President-elect Obama
is really serious about changing the global perception of the US--not
just in Paris, London, Tokyo and Berlin but in the Middle East, the
global South and the developing world--he would worry less about
reassuring establishment stakeholders and the representatives of the
tried, the true and the failed, and make some appointments that
represent some genuinely new departures and new directions. Instead, as
one longtime observer of US-Russian relations reminded me the other day,
in Gates, a veteran Cold Warrior, you have "an establishment figure with
the longest institutional involvement in our failed Russia policies of
anyone in DC."

And with all the talk about the importance of foreign policy experience,
why is there so little attention paid to the quality of that experience?
(Let's not forget, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had quite a bit of
Washington experience.) What we need after eight ruinous years is
experience informed by good judgment. What is gained by bringing in
people who traffic in conventional wisdom and who have shown the kind of
foreign policy timidity that acquiesced to disasters like the Iraq war?

Obama may believe that Gates will give him the cover and continuity he
needs to carry out his planned withdrawal from Iraq. But so could many
others, including Republicans like Chuck Hagel who, at least, opposed
the Iraq war. By keeping Gates on Obama worsens the Democratic image
on national security--- sending the message that even Democrats agree
that Democrats can't run the military. And even more troubling for our
future security, Gates has sounded ominous notes about how more US
troops can pacify Afghanistan. Speaking only days after a National
Intelligence Estimate concluded that the US was caught in a "downward
spiral" there, Gates asserted that there is "no reason to be defeatist
or underestimate the opportunity to be successful in the long run."
Extricating the US from one disastrous war to head into another will
drain resources needed to fulfill Obama's hopes and promises for
economic growth, health care, energy independence and crowd out other
international initiatives.

Of course, Obama still has an opportunity to change the mindset that got
us into Iraq and, more important, he has a popular mandate to challenge
and change failed policies and craft a smarter security policy for this
century. But he's sure making his work tougher by bringing people like
Robert Gates on board.

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