US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is the darling of Bush administration foes. Gushing about Gates in a recent column, Washington Post writer David Ignatius crooned, "Gates is an anomaly in this lame-duck administration. He is still firing on all cylinders, working to repair the damage done at the Pentagon by his arrogant and aloof predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld." Ignatius called on the next administration to give Gates a major role leading its foreign and defense policy.
It can only be hoped that Ignatius's advice will be ignored.
Today the US strategic posture lies in tatters in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of US ally Georgia. The fact that aside from issuing strong reprimands the administration has no policy for contending with Russia's aggression shows clearly that the move caught Washington completely by surprise.
That Russia was apparently able to invade Georgia without US foreknowledge is a stinging indictment of all US intelligence agencies. As was the case before the September 11, 2001 attacks, again US intelligence agencies have failed their country.
But America's intelligence agencies' failure to comprehend the significance of Russia's intentions was not theirs alone. It was shared as well by Gates and by his State Department counterpart Condoleezza Rice. Both senior cabinet secretaries simply failed to notice what Russia was doing, or how its actions would influence US interests.
GATES'S DENIAL of Moscow's strategic hostility to the US was made clear as late as last month. As Russia built up its forces along Georgia's borders, Gates released his new National Defense Strategy which he presented as "a blueprint for success" for the next administration.
Gates's strategy paper, which foresees asymmetric campaigns against non-state actors comprising the bulk of US military operations in the coming decades, raised the hackles of US military commanders when he turned his attention to Russia and China. In Gates's view, the best way to confront these authoritarian rising powers is to deny that they constitute a threat to US interests. Rather than building US forces to confront them, Gates advocates building "collaborative and cooperative relationships" with them.
Gates's penchant for collaborating and cooperating with US rivals and enemies is no doubt the reason that the Left supports him so enthusiastically. Since he assumed office after the November 2006 elections, betraying allies as part of a strategy of appeasing US enemies and rivals has been the focus of his efforts.
Ahead of his appointment to the Pentagon, Gates was a member of the Iraq Study Group led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. The thrust of the ISG report, issued on December 6, 2006 – the day he was sworn into office – was that for the US to maintain its credibility in the Middle East and generally, it was necessary to appease its enemies by betraying its allies.
While the ISG report was ostensibly focused on Iraq, its real focus was Israel. Although the report advocated removing all US combat brigades from Iraq by the beginning of 2008, it wasn't wedded to the notion. It allowed the possibility of a temporary surge of US forces to secure Baghdad and so enable the Iraqi government to assert control over the country and build its military.
But while ambivalent on Iraq, the Baker-Hamilton report was unyielding in its insistence that the US distance itself from Israel. The report argued that to gain regional – and indeed international – support for the project of stabilizing Iraq, it was necessary for the US to appease the Syrians, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Egyptians and the Jordanians. And the best way to do that, they claimed, was to disembowel Israel. The report recommended that Israel be forced to give Syria the Golan Heights and coerced into accepting a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Jerusalem which would be run by a Hamas-Fatah "national unity government."
Like Baker and Hamilton, Gates was also not wed to the idea of a speedy withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq. Instead he supported the surge and for that he has gained great acclaim in Washington. But also like Baker and Hamilton, Gates has been unyielding in his push to distance the US from Israel. Indeed, in his National Defense Strategy, Israel is not listed as a US ally.
GATES'S PUSH to abandon the US's alliance with Israel in favor of embracing Iraq's Iranian and Arab neighbors is nowhere more apparent than in his actions regarding Iran's nuclear weapons program. And those actions are simply a continuation of his efforts before entering office. In 2004, Gates co-authored a study for the Council on Foreign Relations with Israel foe Zbigniew Brzezinski calling for the US to draw closer to Iran at Israel's expense.
Over the past nine months, largely due to Gates's advocacy, this has been the essential thrust of US policy toward Iran and Israel. The policy involves downplaying the urgency of the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, understating the progress Iran has made toward nuclear capabilities and openly working to appease Iran through US support and involvement with EU negotiations with Teheran.
The first US assault on what had until then been a more or less united public front with Israel on the issue of Iran's nuclear program came with the publication of the US's National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear weapons program last November. In the face of Iran's open calls to destroy Israel and the US, its rapid progress in its uranium enrichment activities, its command of the insurgency in Iraq, of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, and its ballistic missile buildup, the NIE claimed that Iran had ended its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
The publication of the NIE was a body blow not only to Israel's efforts to isolate Iran and forge an international consensus about the need to confront Teheran. It was also a precision strike against the US's own stated objective of building a consensus for sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Gates was responsible for the report's public dissemination.
IN RECENT months, as Iran has ratcheted up its genocidal rhetoric, taken over the Lebanese government, strengthened its alliance with Syria, built up its offensive forces, doubled the scale of its uranium enrichment, and strengthened its attachment to Russia, Gates has moved out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Assisted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen and Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, Gates has made defending Iran's nuclear installations against the prospect of any Israeli or US attack his primary concern.
Gates has been a constant proponent of "engaging" Iran. In May for instance, he told a group of retired US diplomats, "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage… and then sit down and talk with them. If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can't go to a discussion and be completely the demander, with them not feeling that they need anything from us."
Following Gates's clear lead, the US not only stopped being "the demander," it has become Iran's supplicant. And it has been repaid with increased Iranian extremism. Iran met the US's decision to openly join the Europeans in offering it everything from nuclear reactors to World Trade Organization membership last month with intensified military action directed most recently against the US's allies in the Persian Gulf. Iran has threatened international oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz, has launched a satellite and tested still more missiles and again and again called for Israel's destruction.
BUT THIS hasn't thwarted Gates. Since Iran itself demonstrated the falsity of the National Intelligence Estimate, Gates moved from subtle to open opposition t
o US military strikes against its nuclear installations. Together with Mullen, in recent months he has stated repeatedly that attacking Iran would be a disaster for the US. And he has not stopped there. Gates has used his authority as defense secretary to also block any possibility that Israel will attack Iran.
In June the Pentagon leaked information about the IAF's massive exercise in the Mediterranean which it claimed was a rehearsal of an attack against Iran. The same month, McConnell and Mullen visited Israel and rejected requests for military equipment and other support that would improve its ability to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Asserting that as far as the obviously infallible US intelligence estimates are concerned, Iran's nuclear program is not nearing completion, Mullen and McConnell also told their interlocutors that the US opposes an Israeli strike against Iran. As a consequence the US will deny the IDF the right to fly over Iraqi airspace.
Alarmed by the administration's swift slide toward Iran in recent months, senior IDF commanders and cabinet ministers have streamed into Washington. Last month Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi spent a week in Washington trying to convince the US to change course. After Ashkenazi failed to deliver the goods, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz all converged on Washington. They too failed.
To hide the US's now openly pro-Iranian position from the public, Mullen gave Ashkenazi an unrequested Legion of Merit decoration. Gates agreed to supply Israel with advanced anti-missile defense systems that could be deployed as early as 2011 if funding is steady. If deployed successfully, these anti-missile systems should be able to intercept up to 90 percent of incoming Iranian nuclear warheads.
SPEAKING OF Russia's invasion of Georgia over the weekend, Gates claimed that Russia's actions would harm its relations with the US and the West "for years to come." But at the same time, he demurred from mentioning even one concrete step that the administration is considering adopting against Russia, arguing that "there is no need to rush into everything."
The administration has been accused by its critics of ignoring the strategic alliance among Russia, Iran and Syria. That alliance has been made most apparent by Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and its provision of sophisticated air-defense systems to both countries. Yet it is more likely that the administration is acutely aware of that alliance. Bush has simply decided to follow Gates's recommendation of appeasing all three.
Gates's position presents a daunting challenge to Israel and indeed to the US. If Iran is to be prevented from carrying out genocide, and if Bush hopes to leave office with even a shred of international credibility, Gates must be shunted firmly to the side.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.