How Robert Gates Got Away With It

As I had told President Bush and Condi Rice early in 2007, the challenge of the early twenty-first century is that crises don’t come and go—they all seem to come and stay.
—Robert M. Gates

Early 2007: American troops are pinned down in the fourth year of a losing war in Iraq and in the fifth of an increasingly desperate one in Afghanistan, crises that still loom over the country and its foreign policy more than half a dozen years later, as Iraq, beset by a jihadist insurgency that sprang from the American invasion, splinters into pieces.

Robert M. Gates; drawing by John Springs

Who in those darkest of dark times could have spoken more authoritatively about “crises that seem to come and stay” than President Bush’s newly appointed secretary of defense Robert Michael Gates? Longtime CIA bureaucratic warrior, cold war veteran, self-described “ultimate insider”—whose experience stretched back longer? Condi Rice as a member of the National Security Council staff and George W. Bush as a president’s ne’er-do-well eldest son were wandering the White House hallways when Gates served the first President Bush as director of central intelligence.1

He had joined the CIA as a Soviet analyst out of graduate school during the days of the high cold war—the Soviet invasion to crush Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring in 1968 “took place on the second day after I began my career as an analyst”—and had spent the intervening years, from the administration of Richard Nixon to that of George H.W. Bush, either at CIA headquarters at Langley or in the White House but always near the apex of power, very often as assistant or executive secretary or chief of staff to the most powerful.

No wonder young staffers in the incoming Obama White House took to referring to the holdover secretary of defense, with his cherubic midwestern smile, diminutive stature, and gnomic pronouncements, as “Yoda.” If wisdom is born of experience, certainly Gates must have it, for faced with whatever “crisis that came and stayed,” the secretary of defense was more than happy to guide younger officials on a tour through the intricate geological strata of recent history, recalling modestly the minute traces of his personal involvement. When the incoming President Obama contemplates a new démarche to Tehran, for example, Gates can let slip that “I had a lot of bad memories relating to Iran from my earlier life in government,” and then paint in these recollections vividly with a laden historical brush:

I had been on the advance trip to Tehran in late 1977 for a state visit by President Carter, a city I thought then—just over a year before the Islamic revolution—was the most tense I had ever experienced; I was present as notetaker in the fall of 1979 in Algiers, when Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, made the first (failed) US attempt to engage the Iranian leadership (our embassy in Tehran was seized days …

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  1. 1

    Only Donald Rumsfeld, whom Gates replaced as secretary of defense, and Vice President Dick Cheney could boast of careers as long, though each, unlike Gates, had spent significant time outside government as business executives. See the earlier articles in this series on Rumsfeld and Cheney, beginning with “ Rumsfeld’s War and Its Consequences Now,” The New York Review, December 19, 2013.