Top Ten Things Bob Gates was Wrong about, Some Criminal

(By Juan Cole)

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his new memoir is said to have slammed Vice President Joe Biden for having been consistently “wrong” on foreign policy matters over the past four decades.

Gates’s petty gossip about his former colleagues should put an end to the pusillanimous Democratic Party tradition of appointing Republicans as secretaries of defense in Democratic administrations.

There is a lot to like about Gates. He over time became something like a defensive realist. He appears to have helped prevent Dick Cheney and the Neocons from attacking Iran. He warns against the seductive character of drone warfare, and wants a court to sign off on drone strikes. He said he thought any military commander who wanted to take US troops into another big ground war should have his head examined. He is scathing on the grandstanding and sadism of congressmen during hearings.

But lest it be forgotten, Gates’s career has been checkered and he has been consistently wrong about foreign policy himself. To wit:

1. Gates as a high official at the CIA was involved in the 1970s and 1980s in vastly exaggerating the economic and military power of the Soviet Union, scaring the American public with a supposed threat that was actually far smaller and less formidable than officials such as Gates alleged. Gates made a career out of politicizing intelligence. Inside the CIA, analysts who tell their bosses what they want to hear are called weasels. Gates was the weaseliest. One of the main reasons the CIA failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 was precisely the exaggerations and politicization pushed by Gates.

When he was a high official at the CIA in the mid to late 1980s, Gates was involved in selling Pentagon weaponry to the Ayatollah Khomeini. That’s right, the dreaded “biggest supporter of terrorism” in the world, the dire security threat to American allies. That Ayatollah Effing Khomeini.

2. When he was a high official at the CIA in the mid to late 1980s, Gates was involved in selling Pentagon weaponry to the Ayatollah Khomeini. That’s right, the dreaded “biggest supporter of terrorism” in the world, the dire security threat to American allies. That Ayatollah Effing Khomeini. Iran was on the US terrorism watchlist at the time the Reagan administration was making the sales, so you couldn’t have done anything more illegal or hypocritical.

3. Not only did the Reagan administration in which Gates served as a loyal capo illegally steal weaponry from Pentagon warehouses (they had no Congressional authorization to sell them, so it was all black money) and sell them to Iran, they inflated the price and used the extra money to support the right wing Nicaraguan death squads known as Contras. Gates went back and forth in his later testimony about how much he knew and when he knew of the diversion of funds from the (already illegal) sales of arms to Iran by Col. Oliver North. The Iran-Contra Commission report decided that he had to have known all about it. Congress had passed the Boland amendment forbidding Reagan from sending tax dollars to the Contras. Reagan contravened that Congressional legislation by misappropriating tax-payers’ money (spent on the weaponry sold to Iran), which is unconstitutional. Gates helped him. Among the activities of the nice Contras was killing leftwing nuns.

4. Gates was, further, involved in further covert provision of weaponry, including chemicals and biological precursors to Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Iraq in the 1980s used chemical weapons against Iran at the front and then against innocent Kurds at Halabja in 1988. The Reagan administration blocked Iranian attempts to take a complaint against Iraq to the UN Security Council.

5. Gates was among the architects of the US policy of giving billions to far right Muslim jihadis (Mujahideen) such as Gulbadin Hikmatyar in northern Pakistan to fight, first the left wing Afghan government in 1979 and then the Soviet Union. The current Afghanistan War that Gates accuses President Obama of being lukewarm about is a direct consequence of the Reagan administration’s decision to fund a private army of jihadis against secular, pro-worker forces.

6. The Afghanistan jihad waged by Gates and others at the CIA involved pressuring Saudi intelligence also to raise funds for it. The Saudis asked Osama Bin Laden to help as a fundraiser. He went to Peshawar and founded the Office of Services with Abdullah Azzam, and came back to Saudi mosques to fundraise. The Office of Services eventually became al-Qaeda. Gates was therefore an accessory to the rise of al-Qaeda, an organization that might never have existed if it had not been for CIA covert operations against leftists in the Middle East, operations in which far right wing fundamentalists were cultivated as allies. The CIA established training institutes for the Afghan jihadis, who passed on the techniques they learned (cell formation, planning covert ops, weapons and explosives use) to their Arab colleagues in what became al-Qaeda. Gates’s CIA helped to create the “terror” that they later dragooned us all into a war against.

7. Gates and others in the Reagan administration appear to have downplayed Pakistan’s nuclear program, in part because they wanted Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s help against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Oooops.

8. Gates thinks that the 2007 Bush troop escalation or “surge” was effective. In fact, the US troops disarmed the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, leaving them open to being ethnically cleansed from mixed neighborhoods by Shiite militias. After a while there weren’t so many mixed neighborhoods.

9. Gates was confident in 2008 that a troop escalation in Afghanistan could allow for free and fair elections and actually said that the Taliban held no territory and the security problems in that country were exaggerated.

10. Gates asserts that he believes that once the US winds down its military role in Afghanistan, that country will be on a fairly good track to success. In fact, Obama’s skepticism about whether the Petraeus counter-insurgency plan could succeed has been entirely borne out by events. As for Gates’s criticism of Obama for not trusting Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, surely he jests. Karzai is a wild card.

It is incredible that someone with this astonishing record of reckless policies, some of which were later implicated in the 9/11 attacks and the resulting wars, should be so highly regarded as a policy-maker. He clearly has had second thoughts about many of those policies and has often been a voice of reason in his old age. But his lifetime record is not one that gives him a platform to attack Joe Biden.


Related video

ABC News reports on Gates’s book

80 Responses

  1. only deeply flawed minds are attracted to government and politics … we MUST learn to ignore them, for our attention is their food, and they need to be starved of it.

    • “only deeply flawed minds…”
      It is our fundamental job AS VOTERS to make sure thattt this kind of person doesn’t get into positions of resonsibility in government. Your prescription that we must “ignore them” is irresponsible. Democracy won’t last when too many of us become “free riders.” … and I’m NOT referring to government financial assistance!

      Dr Cole, your comment form font color is such a pale gray that I can barely see it! Any chance you could tweak your stylesheet to make inputs more readable, for those of us with visual impairments?

    • Only deeply flawed minds are vetted by the powers that be to be considered serious candidates for high public office. There are good people that run, their campaigns are just ignored by the MSM and other powers that be.

      • “There are good people that run, their campaigns are just ignored by the MSM and other powers that be.”

        And,. worse, they are ignored by the American people.

  2. All of those points are well said but I am not sure that they are relevant.

    If what he says about the current administration or that of GWB for that matter is true; so be it. If you say that he is not a trustworthy character because of his past dealings; give us a reason why we should not believe him now.

    I am not defending him or defending the administration; I want to know the relevance of this post to the content of the book.

    He carried out the instructions of his superiors.

    The current administration does not seem to have a strategy of its role in the world. As a matter of fact the President is not interested in world affairs: not interested in Britain or in Europe or in Ukraine or in Russia or in the ME. Perhaps China but even at that with a distant secondary interest.

    He may be right to focus on the US that is not my point; the question is that whether benign neglect is as harmful on the long run as Bull in a China Shop.

    • “He carried out the instructions of his superiors.” Well allrighty then. Eichman carried out the instructions of his superiors. Not exactly a complete defense, hey?

      And this kind of ignores and papers over how “policy,” meaning the behavior and motions of the acting entity, gets made: “Weasels” and Procurement Commands and other elements of the Imperial structure not only inform the High Command on the way to overt or covert “policy” signoffs, and draft and front-load and log-roll the memos and situation documents and stuff, they often run their own operations that winkwinknudgeknowwhatImean are right in the guts of the whole “plausible deniability” scam. And then, often, like Ollie North and Gates and the folks who ordered the killings at places like My Lai and the fun’n’games at Abu Ghraib, skate off into the sunset, often, one might say Generally, with “careers” and/or at least comfortable retirements intact. Because “legal,” or at least whitewasheable, or prosecutorial-discretionable, or “we have to look only forward” escapable.

      What are Petraeus and McChrystal doing these days, again?

      link to Nailed for extramarital whooptedoo, not other defalcations.

      link to Whattaguy! (Would anyone recognize the subject of this story as the same person? link to ) And how about the slam-dunk PR job his command did on the idiot death of Pat Tillman? link to

    • I think you confuse humility with neglect.

      No, this administration doesn’t have a strategy for how to bring the rest of the world to heel. What it has is an awareness of the impossibility of that goal, a recognition of the limits of American power, and a commitment to doing what can be done in response to events.

      Dick Cheney had a strategy of his administration’s role in the world. I’m quite happy to do without one.

      • “I think you confuse humility with neglect.”

        I don’t think “Observer” was confusing humility with neglect. But I don’t think either “humility” or “neglect” describe Obama’s view of the United States’ position in the world either. The term I would use is “naive.” He has displayed a naivete about international relations from the beginning that demonstrate his lack of experience and knowledge. Why should anyone be surprised? In international affairs Obama has acted just as one would expect a “community organizer” to act.

        I am convinced Obama was genuinely convinced that his 2009 speech to the Muslim World in Cairo would get Islam on “our side.” If they only “understood us.” He and his team really thought they had hit a home run. His demand that Israel cease building settlements in the West Bank was noble, but crumbled when Netanyahu called his bluff and Obama was forced to back down. (showing he was no different than any other president in that respect.) Obama’s (and Kerry’s) bumbling approach to the Syrian crisis (Assad must go; lob missiles; don’t lob missiles; take it to Congress; fumble everything so badly that the Russians intervene with a plan, etc.) demonstrated nothing so much as indecisiveness and irresolution, and has left Assad stronger than ever. There are other examples too numerous to mention in a short comment.

        One does not have to be a supporter of the Bush/Cheney strategy to recognize that Obama lacks a strategy. Perhaps Obama’s “humility,” (if one wishes to call it that) appeals to some, but he comes off as a president close to “humbling” himself into irrelevance in the international arena.

        • “I am convinced” is the worst possible evidence one could possibly cite to back up an argument. You are convinced Barack Obama thought a single speech was all it would take to change global public opinion? Gee, that’s nice. It’s amazing what people can convince themselves of, as long it supports what they really want to believe.

          As for Syria, as usual, you have to misstate history for your argument to make sense.

          Obama never cited Assad’s ouster as a red line, as a demand that he would back up with force. He only ever cited chemical weapons usage as his red line – a red line he enforced with the threat of American air strikes, which resulting in the accomplishment of his stated goal.

          An Assad regime stripped of its chemical arsenal is “stronger than ever?” That’s odd – the Assad regime’s chemical arsenal had been the core stick in its regional power. And now, thanks to Obama, it’s gone.

          I love the phrase “fumble so badly that Russians intervene with a plan.” In what universe is a foreign policy that results in Russia stripping a client state of its core military power, at America’s behest, a fumble?

          If that’s a fumble, I want more.

        • “‘I am convinced’ is the worst possible evidence one could possibly cite to back up an argument.”

          It is not “evidence to back up an argument.” The reason I was convinced, however, is because Obama and his team were so filled with hubris when they assumed power, and so sure that their “change of course” would result in a different perspective on the US by the Muslim World, that they thought the power of their words alone would sway history as much as it enthralled themselves. They brought no understanding of the international arena, much less the Muslim World, to the table, and the overall response of the Muslim World to Obama is what one would expect. No favors please.

          “As for Syria, as usual, you have to misstate history for your argument to make sense.”

          My comment on Syria illustrates a timeline and an indecisive backing-and-forthing that is on the public record. The sequence I stated is exactly the sequence as it occurred. I know you want to believe it was Obama’s plan all along. It was not. It was his and Kerry’s indecisiveness (Lob missiles, don’t lob missiles, take it to Congress) that enabled the Russians to advance a plan. And while Obama did not cite Assad’s ouster as a “Red Line,” he did cite Assad’s ouster as a “must,” and he did so on several occasions. And if you think Assad is not in a stronger position to maintain power now than when the brouhaha over chemical weapons began, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you!

        • Reading your comment again, your evidence of Obama’s naiveté amounts to:

          1. You feel pretty sure his expectations for a speech were too high. You have no evidence of these expectations, but you feel it is so. This is what we call “circular reasoning.” We know Obama is naive because he had high expectations for the speech, and we know he had high expectations for the speech because he’s just so naive. See the logical flaw?

          2. The Israeli policy of building settlements has not been ended. I’m not entirely sure how this is supposed to demonstrate President Obama’s naiveté, and I’m left wondering how, exactly, the building of settlements by Israel in the Occupied Territories depends upon the actions of the US President.

          3. His response to the Syria chemical weapons crisis was aimed at chemical weapons, not the overthrow of the regime, and succeeded in eliminating the chemical weapons, not the overthrow of the regime.

          OK. As truly compelling as those are as evidence of naiveté and incompetence, might I offer as a counterpoint: the successful nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia (you know, the ones that succeeded when you were chuckling about the naiveté of Obama’s “Reset with Russia?”), bringing the Iranians to the table on their nuclear program, and recognizing that the old realpolitik relationships with the regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia had been rendered obsolete by the Arab Spring.

        • 1. Obama would not have made the speech had he not had high expectations that it would begin the process of a “reset” with the Muslim World. I think it demonstrated a lack of understanding of what drives the Muslim World’s view of the U.S. Do we have greater influence in the Muslim Word today than we did in 2009? The question answers itself.

          2. The naivete regarding his initial demand that Israel cease building settlements was demonstrated by his thinking it might be effective. He would have not made the demand otherwise. It was clear to anyone who knew something about Israel that Obama’s demand would be rejected. Everyone save Obama, of course.

          3. His response to Syrian chemicals did not lead to a straight-line elimination of those weapons. It was his indecisive bumbling, culminating in his daft idea to take it to Congress, that enabled the Russians to intervene with their plan. The Russians saved Obama from his own incompetence. Your continuing effort to call it an Obama success story is touching, though.

          4. About Obama’s “reset” with Russia, it sure is going swimmingly isn’t it? Putin sure works with us on issues of importance. It’s just that, as is the case with Syria, he does it when he can further entrench his friend Assad in power. He has kicked out U.S. AID and various civil society NGOs. Some reset.

          But I do admire your persistence, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, in attempting to put a shine on Obama’s legacy to date.

    • “He carried out the instructions of his superiors.”

      Gates was a very powerful advisor to senior politicians, an advisor to men whose background was usually in domestic, not foreign affairs. They certainly needed advice, but the responsibility for its quality rests on him.

    • ” If you say that he is not a trustworthy character because of his past dealings; give us a reason why we should not believe him now. ”

      Because he is not a trustworthy person! Seriously, look up the word “trust”! He committed multiple treasonous activities, committed perjury several times, lied to Congress, so why should we believe the book he wrote?

  3. At the end of the day he’s just another Republican wanting to cash in and his book advance probably dictated that he dish.

    If he thinks any Americans care who did/did not support the Iraq surge, he’s badly deluded.

    • Right on mate. Americans, except those getting direct payment for their role in the occupation of Afghanistan, want us out of that hell hole.

    • “At the end of the day he’s just another Republican wanting to cash in and his book advance probably dictated that he dish.”

      Much like those other “Republicans” who have written books, such as Jimmy Carter (25 books at last count), Bill Clinton (three books) Hillary Clinton (two or three, in addition to the one she is writing now), Zbigniev Brzezinski, Rahm Emanuel, and a host of other Democrats who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations. Some Republicans! And all wanting to cash in!

      • Anyone who has led a life interesting enough can write a memoir. If thousands ARE interested and the books have commercial value, what’s to be cynical about?

        After all, to whom does the interesting life belong? Are men and women who choose lives in politics supposed to be ascetics practicing some pointless form of life long self-denial? Should they be disentitled from the attempt to shape how they are remembered?

        • I agree with you, Mr. Watson. My reply was a response to “Bob h’s” original post, which seemed to cynically suggest that only “Republicans” want to write books and cash in.

  4. This Administration, and others of course, along with a whole lot of businesses that saddle themselves with similar creatures, apparently believe that “hiring expertise” is the touchstone for “success” and “victory.” “Expert” at what, again? J. Edgar Hoover and Wild Bill Donovan were “experts,” and so are Timmy Geithner and Rahm Emanuel (and there are of course a lot more poignant examples that don’t leap to mind), and a whole raft of expert-at-Golden-Handshake-and-Parachute-and-Compensation-Committee CEOs, and of course insiders like Gates.

    • I’m not especially comfortable with the “expert” business either but where else does one find sufficiently informed comment? The administration of governments must be collaborative, the ranks filled by apparatchiks with specialties. The Soviet Union even had offices devoted exclusively to the ideological interpretation of events and policy. They were there because they are perceived to be needed.

      • There are those, Hunter, who passionately believe that all one needs to understand the world is the proper ideological framework. In this sense, JT McPhee is little different from the Bush administration officials who actively weeded out people with experience and education in Arab language and history from the team they sent into Iraq.

        • Actually, all I ask is that the “experts” have something more than a store of deep and detailed and “knowledgeable” involvement in prior bad acts, something other than a career-long fundamental world view that’s postulated on More Of The Same, and actual evidence of skills at actually making situations calmer, better, safer, healthier, rather than detailed, complex, interlocking abilities for loading up the racks with more weapons, more dogma, more instability in service of short-term gains for one parasitic part of our political economy at the expense of the general welfare and species survival. Our system does not seem to select for those better qualities, for some reason. Excising people with language skills and understanding of the culture “we” were about to invade would be the last thing I would want to do. I still have my little comic book the Army gave me when I got to Tan Son Nhut in 1967, telling me all I supposedly needed to know about the people, culture, customs, history and language of Vietnam. Thanks for the gratuitous and inapposite sneer, however.

  5. “Gates’s CIA helped to create the “terror” that they later dragooned us all into a war against.”

    The New York Times wrote in 1994 about the risk of blowback from the Afghan battlefield (see here).

    • That is an excellent article which chronicles some of the same players in Afghanistan that are around today.

      It also correctly emphasizes the lack of effective government that caused the Afghan opium trade to flourish – which now produces 87% of the world’s supply.

  6. Maybe Democrat presidents will learn from this Gates attack that a GOPer is a GOPer and will stab you in the back for partisan gain.

    If it is true that Gates admires Karzai, then he gets the Most Deluded Man of the Year Award. Karzai is not just a wild card, he’s a double dealing two faced oriental puppet who needs to be put in his place. The British knew how to do this. Yanks are hopeless at it.

    • “The British knew how to do this.”

      Unfortunately, the Brits were and are far from infallible as the histories of Britain’s colonies and Thatcher, Blair and Cameron prove. Equally unfortunately in too many instances, the US and Britain have a lot in common.

    • If I recall correctly, at the peak of their national and colonial power in the mid-19th Century, the British army, having captured Kabul, was driven out of Afghanistan with dispatch. The redcoats were nearly all killed from rocky positions high above by tribesmen armed with long-barrelled homemade rifles. They died one by one during their retreat to India. An army physician is said to have survived because he had a horse.

    • “Karzai is not just a wild card, he’s a double dealing two faced oriental puppet who needs to be put in his place. The British knew how to do this.”

      They did? Have you read anything about the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842), when the British marched to Kabul with 4,500 officers and men, and 12,000 camp followers, in order to depose Emir Dost Mohammed and restore Shah Shuja to the throne? The failure of their mission, the retreat from Kabul, and the resulting slaughter of all save one British Army surgeon (Dr. William Brydon) is considered one of the worst catastrophes ever to befall the British. Afghanistan appears to be unique in that no outsider has ever been able to subdue or control it for very long.

      • A famous British historian whose name I have of course forgotten warned the Bush Administration in the aftermath of 9/11 that hot pursuit of bin Laden was one thing but that occupation and nation-building in Afghanistan was quite another and it should not be attempted.

        Even Ariel Sharon, who rushed to Washington during the 9/11 crisis to sniff about for more commitments to Israel, warned Bush not to attempt nation building there. He preferred an American attack on Iran. The administration promised to deal with Iran after the cake walk into Iraq. Only a dozen years later has the current administration seemed to have escaped that “obligation” to Israel. And appearances may well be deceiving.

  7. I got worried for President Obama (& our country) when Doris Kerns Goodwin popped up on Sunday talk shows promoting her book ‘A Team of Rivals’.

    Between Summers, Geithner, all the Ex-Clintonites, Gates I thought then …Oh Boy!

    The book I am looking forward to reading will be Obama’s book when he leaves office. Then maybe we will start seeing who’s behind the curtain.

    There is an invisible hand at work here…sorry I just believe that.

    • An apt analogy. Lincoln’s once in a lifetime *political* brilliance and near perfect temperament were key to national survival.

      We’re nowhere near being able yet to judge President Obama by the same standard even though the country has been in crisis since the GWB administration.

      Ultimately the profession and the odd brilliant journalist will pass judgment, but I’ve never looked forward to Presidential memoirs as I do his. I hope things get straightened out in about four thick volumes on onion skin.

      • Obama’s greatest successes seem to be where he prevented things from getting much worse, when they easily could have.

        We could have had bank runs in this country in 2009.

        We could have had 20-25% unemployment.

        Health care costs could have continued to rise at rate much higher than inflation for the past five years, as they did over the previous decade, throwing our health care system into crisis.

        Americans could have continued to die in a hot shooting war in Iraq.

        There could have been a series of attacks from al Qaeda, which as of 2009 had recovered almost to it’s strength in 2001.

        The international consensus against chemical weapons could have broken down, resulting in arms races and new stockpiles and an end to the longstanding disarmament trend.

        A nuclear arms race could have broken out in the Middle East, with the Iranian domino knocking over Saudi, Egyptian, and Turkish dominoes.

        But they didn’t. However, because they didn’t – because these problems were prevented instead of needing to be addressed after they’d blossomed into actual crises – President Obama is much less likely to receive credit than if they he’d responded after the problems had boiled over, even though those later responses would likely have been more expensive and less effective.

        • That’s the defense that James Buchanan made of his record as President.

          No, really, look it up. “I prevented things from getting much worse” was Buchanan’s defense. And it’s sort of true, except in retrospect not really.

          I guess we won’t be able to judge until some time later whether Obama actually prevented any of these potential disasters you list, or merely delayed them.

          If he merely delayed them they’ll probably be worse when they do happen than they would be if they’d happened earlier. If he prevented them, great.

        • That’s an interesting, indirect way of looking at it. In the long run though my guess is that he’ll get credit for it. His Administration is going to interest historians.

  8. ‘Duty’. That’s the name of the book. But it’s really about the appearance of duty,not the reality. Politicians (and that includes career military and intelligence ‘brass’) are the consumate actors. They are never ‘offscreen’ even in their dreams. That is how they can be so devastatingly wrong. They live in an imaginary America (and world) which has no basis in reality and their personal lives are the same. It’s pure Hollywood.

    • “They live in an imaginary America (and world) which has no basis in reality and their personal lives are the same. It’s pure Hollywood.”

      Unfortunately, too many Americans buy into these illusions and delusions.

  9. I do not believe there is a straight line connection between the covert support for the mujahidin, which included bin Laden, initiated by the Carter administration following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and al Qaeda as it emerged in the mid eighties, nor do I believe the Carter administration was responsible for the mujahidin’s evolution.

    Three central concepts underlie the evolution of bin Laden’s thinking as Sept 11, 2001 approached.

    They were, 1) the continuing occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel and the underlying anger of toward the West for imposing the state of Israel in the middle of the Arab world. This attitude has always been a subtext of Arab sentiment beginning well before Carter.

    2) The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 which included the deaths of approximately 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians civilians, occupation by Israel of an Arab capital, and it summer long shelling and corresponding destruction, and then the massacres, orchestrated by Ariel Sharon, at the Sabre and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut of which the US had given its pledge to protect after the evacuation from Beirut of the PLO fighters.

    3) The Gulf War of 1990 in which the Americans were given permission by the Saudi government to use its air bases from which to launch attacks.

    These were historical events, two of them at least, which occurred after 1980 for which the Carter administration bares no responsibility and for which there is no direct causal relation to the evolution of al Qaeda as it evolved over the next two decades.

    • I’ve written too much in this thread but I really want to thank you for this pithy view from the Arab side. The American people just don’t understand the effect of what we’ve been doing in the region. Nor do they understand their own interests in changing the policies.

  10. An excellent write-up.

    Your #6 does a particularly good job of handling the al-Qaeda/CIA question without advancing popular myth.

  11. Certainly no defender of Gates, in fact one of my disappointments with Obama is that he retained Gates, but at least half of the things you list here are presidential policy. Cabinet Cecretaries do not make policy, they carry out policy set by the president and those above them in the administration. I don’t think those policies can properly be laid at Gates’ feet.

    Washington is a sel-perpetuating horror show, since each administration is made up of individuals who have been members of half a dozen preceeding administrations. Not unique to Obama, it has been true for decades. How does change occur when only the figurehead changes and he is being “advised” by the same morona who “advised” half a dozen figurheads who preceeded him?

    • Agree. And the same thing happens in state governments. The bureaucracies don’t change – they are similarly self-perpetuating, all feeding on the funds of taxpayers who think their vote manages anything.

    • “Cabinet Cecretaries do not make policy, they carry out policy set by the president and those above them in the administration. I don’t think those policies can properly be laid at Gates’ feet.”

      This is especially true when we’re talking about the CIA, where Gates spent most of his time. The CIA is a tool of the Oval Office.

  12. “The Reality of Robert Gates: Defense Secretary Robert Gates is leaving government with accolades from all over Official Washington. Only a few dissenting voices note that the reality of Gates’s four-plus years at the Pentagon’s helm doesn’t match the image,” as former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observes in this guest essay.

    The Myth of Robert Gates – link to

  13. I do not believe that Operation Cyclone – the CIA’s covert war in Afghanistan – was per se a bad idea.

    It was initiated by the Carter administration and augmented under President Reagan. China was one of the countries that supplied arms to the Afghan rebels as well as Saudi Arabia. It was in response to the so-called “Brezhnev Doctrine” that the Soviet Union would not allow a socialist regime to fall without Soviet military aid.

    The Soviets propped Nur Muhammad Taraki, a Marxist, as Afghan head of state in the late 1970s until he was assasinated in 1978. The USSR then installed Hafizullah Amin, an Ivy League-educated former teacher to succed Taraki – Amin was murdered by the KGB during the December of 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – they then replaced Amin with Babrak Karmal. The Communist government in Kabul was extremely unpopular and they had to literally kidnap men off the street to serve in the Afghan army.

    The Soviet’s primary strategy in occupying Afghanistan was to obtain a base and supply line to train and arm Balochi rebels in western Pakistan and eventually obtain a badly-needed naval base on the Indian Ocean. The Pakistani opposed this due to valuable natural resources that were in that region. The civil war that raged from 1979-1992 in Afghanistan ravaged the already impoverished Afghan people. Afghanistan at this time tied Somalia for the lowest literacy rate in the world (5%) and also had one of the highest infant mortality rates.

    The CIA-supplied rebellion succeded in 1992 when the rebels captred Kabul and the nation’s final Marxist leader – Dr. Najibullah – was hanged. The Soviets lost over 15,000 soldiers killed in action and were decimated by anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons given by the rebels by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Osama bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia a national hero and was given an audience with King Fahd.

    The failure of the U.S. and its allies was in neglecting to establish a stable government and civil infrastructure to help a devastated Afghan citizenry following 1992, which led to sectarian fighting between former CIA allies. This power vacuum led the Pakistani ISI to create and arm the Taliban – which quickly occupied Kabul and most of the countryside in Afghanistan.

    It was the Clinton administration that failed to gauge the seriousness of the situation, provide sufficient assistance to the Afghan government that led to Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and the unelected Taliban militia flourishing which President Bush inherited when he assumed ofice in 2001. Former U.S. Representative Pete Hoekstra, then chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has made it clear that the Clinton administration had the ability to kill bin Laden – but elected not to.

    Al-Qaeda and the ongoing civil war within Afghanistan was a direct product of failures of President Clinton in following up on a CIA, Saudi Arabian, Chinese and Mossad covert operations success against Soviet-aligned interests.

    • “The War in Afghanistan: The legacy of Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Volatile Situation in Pakistan by Can Erimtan – link to

      This is a version of several similar reports I have read about Brzezinski getting Carter and the US into Afghanistan: “The War in Afghanistan: The legacy of Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Volatile Situation in Pakistan by Can Erimtan – link to“-by-can-erimtan-.html

    • “The failure of the U.S. and its allies was in neglecting to establish a stable government and civil infrastructure to help a devastated Afghan citizenry following 1992….”

      Sorry, Mr. Koroi, but you make the same mistake in analyzing events in post 1992 Afghanistan that both Presidents Bush and Obama made in their counter-insurgency and “nation-building” programs subsequently. There is no way the United States and its allies could have established a “stable government and civil infrastructure” in Afghanistan during the Clinton Administration, any more than they could or did during the Bush and Obama Administrations. The fundamental flaw in your analysis and conclusion is to assume that the United States could have accomplished the task without the Afghans having reached a certain level of development.

      History has shown time and again that “nation-building” from the outside always fails. It is only when the population of a country reaches a certain critical mass of a standard of living, middle class, political maturity, and higher level of sophistication that they bring pressure to bear on their structure to begin the process of political and economic maturity. Nothing can do it for them if they have not reached that critical mass that leads to the catalyst moving them forward.

      This old line that Afghanistan turned into a failed state because the U.S. abandoned it after the Soviets left is stale bread. It would have turned out no differently had we stayed, just as it has not advanced in any significant degree even after we have stayed there for the last 11 years, This is a false argument.

      • It’s certainly true that the US cannot conduct nation-building from the outside, but in 1992, Kabul fell to the forces Ahmed Shah Mashood.

        Could a native Afghan government, organized by Afghans but receiving material support from the outside, have succeeded?

        We don’t know.

        • All one usually has to do is wait. And keep the slimy “policy” MIC-SEC paws off. And yes, it will be messy, but as you repeatedly point out about our own nation’s messy “democratization”, eventually SOMETHING settles out, however meta-stable. It’s the muscular Righteous Interventionist Exceptionalists and their covert agendas that get us all into such trouble.

        • ‘And yes, it will be messy, but as you repeatedly point out about our own nation’s messy “democratization”, eventually SOMETHING settles out’

          There’s a problem with this logic. The birth of democracy may be messy, but that doesn’t mean everything that’s messy is the birth of democracy.

          You say “paws off.” “Paws off” was exactly the world’s stance towards Afghanistan in the 1990s. How’d that work?

        • Extra points for false equivalences and logic-chopping misdirection in such a short post. Any debate that our Empire “intervenes” all over the place? Any proof that those “interventions,” from invasion to sneaky-pete destabilization and suborned regime change, have made the net world situation any better over time? Or even advanced “our national interests,” other than some careers and the bottom lines of a few smallish sectors of the economy? And yes, I know the argument, often presented by pre-schoolers, that “Everyone else is doing it,” and “If we don’t do it, somebody else will,” and “Igor did it first.” And of course the perennial “It’s always been this way,” coupled to the equally idiotic “That’s the way the Game is played.” The current state of the world, political, economic and oops! environmental, matched up with “what could be,” kind of belies the “virtue” of all those arguments. By the way, “Paws on” by empires and sneaky-petes was what produced “Afghanistan in the 1990s,” along with a lot of other “situations.” How’d THAT work?

      • I wonder whether we would have done better to support the USSR there regardless of ultimate goals, as its secular ideology seemed more likely to moderate religious and cultural tensions with the incentive of economic development. As noted by others, the tree of democracy flourishes only where the soil is fertile, after perhaps three generations under secular government. Likely the USSR would have failed anyway, as did the British three times, each intervention larger and longer than the last.. But of course the mindless right wing had to secretly punish the USSR.

    • A few corrections Mark.

      1. Left-wing intellectuals with the help of communist army officers in the Afghan military seized power in 1978.

      Even before the coup, the Soviets foreign policy aim was to preserve Afghanistan as a neutral state (they knew the country was too tribal to leap to socialism). So while the Kremlin wasn’t behind the coup (they had friendly relations with the previous non-communist government), they nonetheless supported it.

      2. Faced with a massive revolt in the country-side and in the cities, Taraki pleaded for Soviet intervention but the Kremlin rejected the request several times.

      The Afghan communists were also fighting amongst themselves along ethnic lines.

      3. Amin seized power in 1979 and had Taraki smothered under a pillow. This ticked off the Kremlin since they feared Amin was a clandestine CIA agent.

      4. Soviets invade in 1979: they murdered Amin and installed Karmal and Najibullah.

      Their aim was not to get access to a naval base in the Indian Ocean but to train the Soviet Afghan Army, broker peace between the rival communist parties, and to prevent the insurgency from crossing the border into Soviet Central Asia.

      5. Najibullah wasn’t hanged until 1996. He took refuge at the UN compound in Kabul in 1992 and when the Taliban seized Kabul, they hanged him.

      • The habit of viewing events in the developing world only through the lens of great-power proxy fights is deeply ingrained in western political thought, even (at this point, perhaps I should say “especially”) among those most opposed to such great-power meddling.

      • In retrospect, since Amin wasn’t a CIA agent, the USSR should just have left Afghanistan alone.

        Unfortunately, Brezhnev was still running the USSR. Running it into the ground.

        Gorbachev took three years before he gave up and got out of Afghanistan. That’s too long, but it’s already smarter than Obama.

        Anyway, looking at counterfactuals, if the Soviets and the US had left Afghanistan alone, it’s not clear what would have happened. It probably would have spread into Pakistan one way or another. The USSR would have been able to maintain their border with no difficulty. Eventually Iran would probably have stepped in in a non-military way as an “honest broker” and been treated fairly positively (this being ex-Persian territory culturally).

  14. If Poppy Bush hadn’t pardoned Cap Weinberger, we’d probably know lots more about Capo Gates’ involvement in Iran/Contra. And Gates would be writing from a less lushly appointed retirement — from prison instead of The Pentagon.

  15. A foreign policy that benefits us in the 99.99% of citizens is completely impossible.

    Consider multi-lateral diplomacy with war as a game, like chess, but more complex. Instead of 16 pieces each for 2 players, we have 10s of players, each with 100s of pieces. Instead of individual pieces having a couple or 3 possible types of moves, each piece in the foreign policy game, e.g. military units, businesses, NGOs, federal, state or local gov, political groups, economic groups, … have dozens of possible responses to any event. Instead of the players taking turns, with time to think between moves, any player can make any move at any time, simultaneously with the other players doing the same.

    Chess is at the limit of human comprehension. Nobody plays 3-way or 3D chess because the game is so complex it isn’t possible to play enough games in a lifetime.

    I could do the math, but trust me, multi-lateral diplomacy with war makes 3-way chess look as simple as Tic-Tac-Toe.

    OTOH, a foreign policy that benefits large campaign contributors is easy, precisely the one that we have.

    This is why being a neutral nation is such a great benefit to citizens : it prevents our gov from another form of crony-capitalism.

  16. My points once again:
    1. What is the relevance of the author’s character and his former positions to what he wrote about the current administration’s handling of foreign affairs?
    2. What is the relevance of the author’s supposed desire to make a fortune out of this book to the points he makes about the performance of the current administration?
    3. My reading of the administration’s response is that they focused fully on defending Joe Biden and ignored completely the allegations made regarding the President. So I read the administration’s response as damage control and deflection of the debate towards the merits of Joe Biden.
    4. To clarify my position
    a) I was and remain against the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq and against the conduct of the war in Afghanistan from the get go
    b) I agree that we should end these unnecessary wars and stop nation building abroad when we need to do so here first
    c) I agree with the decision not to intervene in Syria and Iraq and in any area where the strategic interests of the US are not threatened in a major way as for example a foreign power blocking the Panama canal for example
    d) At present the Arab Muslim world is going through a huge upheaval that is due to the post colonial inherent instability of these countries’ borders and they way they were cobbled up by Britain and France. Any intervention is going to be futile. Especially since they were kept together by the iron fist of autocrats who have long stopped to deliver anything but brutality.
    5. Now to the reality: whether we are independent or not of energy needs we are committed to the safety of energy resources flow and for continued economic prosperity not because we should or that we are exceptional but because no else can do it. The problem is that we cannot do it alone and it is time to bring in others and most importantly the people of the region not their autocrats. Moltke the elder was called the best strategist of his time and he objected vehemently for “he never conducted a retreat”.
    6. I do not think the current President is naive; he is simply incompetent. He may be an idea generator but as an executioner of his ideas he is a failure. This is not a reflection of his correctness on social or health issues but he either micromanages or he delegates without follow through. He is simply incompetent and I might add disingenuous. Even his signature legacy the ACA leaves a lot to be desired in its implementation and its real detail.
    7. I do not believe for one minute that a religiously based political system is compatible with democracy. If God legislates then there is no possibility for human progress and discussion of new legislation.
    8. The Islamic Republic of Iran is an anathema to the very idea of the enlightenment that brought us the Constitution. Article one specifies that sovereignty belongs to God not to man. Every article in that constitution refers to the Islamic principles behind it. The structure of government has an unelected leader that is considered infallible. There is no free press and no independent judiciary and the rule of law. And to prove the incompetence of this president he manages to negotiate with a regime that is non accountable and with which we can have no verification of implementation that we can trust.
    So when I read that the Defense Secretary that was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama bring out his version of events I like the scientist that I am will look at the evidence and compare it to other areas of performance and discern without being absolutely certain that this President is incompetent and this is coming from someone that voted for him. Also this “Islamic” republic has Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians and Bahai and Atheists and what have you that have no place really in an “Islamic” republic.

    So my conclusion is that GWB was disastrous and criminal in his response to 9/11 and this one is incompetent in dealing with the mess handed out to him.
    He has shown that he is incapable of conducting the orderly and necessary retreat that the US has to do from these disastrous wars.

    In the executive branch there is no democracy you follow orders and if you think that they are illegal or unethical you resign and inform the public.

    So I repeat the former was a criminal and this one is an incompetent so why the anger.

    • The relevance of the author’s character is Gates’s record of (a) lying, (b) supporting violent, fascist, and criminal thugs, and (c) geopolitical incompetence. In this context, he has no place to criticize Biden from.

      This doesn’t mean that Biden is *right*, but it does mean you can’t believe anything Gates says.

  17. “Gates’s petty gossip about his former colleagues should put an end to the pusillanimous Democratic Party tradition of appointing Republicans as secretaries of defense in Democratic administrations.”

    It’s not necessarily pusillanimous, rather an attempt to keep military affairs non-political and unite the country. Lincoln appointed a Democrat Secretary of War. Wilson should have appointed a Republican, as FDR did. When General Clark was running for the Democratic nomination he said he wouldn’t appoint a Republican because Republicans never appointed Democrats and the public didn’t realize the Republicans were playing politics with defense, they thought the Republicans were the party of defense and the Democrats were acknowledging that as a fact. Of course, if you’re a 4-star general you don’t need to establish your defense cred, but there is a case for SecDefs from the opposition. The problem with today’s Republicans is that they don’t accept loyal opposition, even when they’re the opposition.

  18. After the Bay of Pigs, JFK stated victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somali, etc. are all orphans. No elected politician in Congress, the Senate or the White House wants to volunteer, step up and take a paternity test. They’re pretty much all deadbeat parents inside the beltway bubble when it comes to these wars..
    That’s the prism through which I view this latest crisis du jour when it comes to the radioactive fallout from Robert Gates’ memoir. It’s just par for the course as it becomes more and more evident what a failure this long war on terror has been. By the way, that includes both administrations since the 9/11 attacks. This is beyond partisan politics.
    And this kind of childish finger pointing happened during and after the presidencies of LBJ and Richard Nixon. But the war in Vietnam holds the grand prize as the mother of all orphans in our nation’s history. As the dearly departed Saddam Hussein might say. If he were still alive.
    All major players in this farce will be judged rather unkindly, I think even now, by most historians in the future. But to be honest, you have to realize that I’m just a deeply cynical Vietnam veteran. And I’ve seen this all before.
    Gates is the first horse from the Obama administration out of the gate galloping toward the finish line. He wants that shiny trophy. It’s his historical legacy. But I wouldn’t bet the house on that tired old nag if I were you.
    But to be serious for a moment, Is he really a war criminal as Professor Cole somewhat asserts in this essay? Well, Professor, there all pretty much war criminals. And that’s really not a moral judgment on my part. It’s just a job description one would might on a resume, you know, for the next gig in the military/industrial complex. They’re all hired guns for the empire.
    It’s like the role Richard Boone used to play as Paladin, an old TV Western i black and white, that I loved to watch as a kid growing up in the late Fifties. Paladin dressed completely in black – a black cowboy outfit with a black hat. Killing a fellow human being is serious business. He looked like an undertaker. On business cards that Paladin handed out to clients was the name of the TV show: “Have Gun – Will Travel.”
    Gates is just another hired gun, though a minor one, way down on the career ladder. Actually, I kind of like the guy. He has a really dark sense of humor just like me.

    • Great post, especially reference to Palidan:
      “Palidin, Palidin where do you roam?
      Far, far…from home.”

  19. Everyone is so literate, has so many good points.

    All miss the full context, e.g all empires die of military spending, we can’t even engineer improvements in our own society, all countries that have implemented Progressive policies are deeply in debt, have insolvent banking systems, lousy economies with high unemployment and aging populations.

    The US also, and we add $1T in foreign-policy and military spending, mostly created $. Also, we haven’t won a war since Korea, despite having such an amazing military.

    But I am sure all of you very literate foreign policy experts will get this fixed, as soon as you attend to it. And the equally-literate commenters on various domestic policies ditto.

    • “… we haven’t won a war since Korea, …”

      lew: You are forgetting our glorious victory in Grenada under the heroic leadership of Ronald Reagan when we only amassed around six thousand naval and support personnel to face the overwhelming odds of a couple hundred Cubans and Grenadian allies.

      • And now we will see the threads carefully ignore our posts. Too much cognitive dissonance, I guess.

        • I can give you the full list of wars we won since Korea (which was a draw): Grenada, Gulf War I (which was kind of easy) and Kosovo (which was brilliance on the part of General Clark).

          Every other one has been lost, while spending goes up and up and up.

          We even lost the Cold War, as far as I can tell from the USSR-like behavior of our current government.

      • The use of the term itself is unfortunate. It suggests that the author really did know his duty and fulfilled it rigorously, while others perhaps did not.

    • “Also, we haven’t won a war since Korea, despite having such an amazing military.”

      We certainly prevailed against Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War by pushing him out of Iraq, which was the limit of our mandate. That was clearly a success. Some argue we should have pursued Saddam all the way to Baghdad, but that was never the intention or goal of the war; it was to restore Kuwait, and it was a success.

      • War? I thought that was known as ‘the turkey shoot’.

        Be serious. 100,000 air sorties with 75 planes lost? What would be the accident rate for that number?

        M1 Abrams against Chinese Type 69s and T-72s with poor training. Domination of the air. Most Coalition troops lost to friendly fire.

        Not a war, whatever our corrupt leadership calls it.

        • Having picked the smallest nits, everyone can go on ignoring the main point : we are not winning with our foreign policy and huge military spending.
          We cannot win, that is an intellectual task very, very, very far too large for human minds.
          Neutrality is the only winning strategy : let others waste their resources playing the un-winnable game.
          Ditto for all of the social engineering within our country.

          The USofA was a huge win for the 99.9% for a lot of its history. Then Progressives of the Left and the Right took us over starting end of the 1900s. They now control all major institutions in our society, and we in the 99.9% are losing badly.

        • Lew, you’ve got your history completely whacked.

          For the reason why the US now loses wars, look at Robert Franks’s book _The Generals_.

          Basically, up to and including WWII, the US dissolved the military after each war and built a brand new one for each new war — one which was purpose-built for the new war. Since WWII, we have the “military-industrial complex”, which is not designed to win any actual war, but rather to feed itself.

          This is why the US won every war for 150 years and then started losing every war.

        • Nathanial :

          We didn’t go broke with military spending on the Empire either.

          So how do you think a civilization can avoid the trap of a permanent military? Maybe follow the Constitution? But how to you guarantee that, given the impulse to Empire?

          You progressives all have point solutions for particular problems, but the system fails.

    • It’s kind of hard to miss that fact. Even if you are Bob Gates. You have to be wilfully blind to not see the ways Israel’s government has been isolating Israel, right up to deliberately and pointlessly insulting the Turkish ambassador.

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