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
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 later); I was in the White House with CIA director Stansfield Turner the evening of our failed attempt to rescue our embassy hostages in the spring of 1980; I witnessed the Iran-Contra disaster in 1986–87; and I was present in the Situation Room during the US-Iranian naval incidents in the Persian Gulf in 1987–88 and the downing of a civilian Iranian airliner by a US warship in 1988.

What weight must this tale of proximity to decisions and decision-makers have added to Gates’s words when he “reminded the president and principals that every president since Carter had tried to engage with the Iranians, that every outstretched American hand had been slapped away, and that two presidents, Carter and Reagan, had paid a significant political price for it.”

That frank acknowledgment of politics is typical of an official who shows himself to be, through two memoirs recounting the supposedly politics-free world of high-level diplomacy and intelligence, a political animal par excellence. Typical also is a subtly insinuating editing of history in his own favor—for example, the overly modest claim that he “witnessed the Iran- Contra disaster in 1986–87,” when in fact he had seen his cherished nomination to become director of central intelligence collapse amid senators’ skepticism about the story he told of lack of involvement, lack of knowledge, lack of recollection. Although “we doubted Gates’s veracity, we were unlikely to prosecute him,” Judge Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating Iran-contra, told the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, because, Walsh said, he and his investigators “did not think we had enough corroborating evidence to indict Robert Gates.”2

Still, George H.W. Bush was able to gain confirmation of Gates as his director of central intelligence four years later, though an unprecedented thirty-three senators voted against him. If Iran-contra doesn’t quite rise to the level of a “crisis that came and stayed,” consider the ruins that the Bush administration bequeathed to President Obama: an increasingly authoritarian, Iranian-allied Iraq where a thousand Iraqis die each month in an ongoing civil war in which an al-Qaeda-linked insurgency controls the western part of the country, its second-largest city, and increasingly threatens the capital itself; and a post-al-Qaeda Afghanistan where the Taliban, far from the defeated force President Bush proclaimed in 2002, have been resurgent.


As one looks upon these black holes of violence and dissolution one is struck by how these “crises that came and stayed” extend backward, step by logical step, deep into the 1970s. The Iranian Revolution of 1978 set loose the Islamist wave that swept away the old American-backed order in the Middle East, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the following year provoked the opposition of Muslim warriors whose spiritual descendants, decades later, would pilot their hijacked airliners into American skyscrapers. Following the intricate unfolding of these chains of events is one of the chief rewards of reading Gates’s two densely detailed memoirs, for together they offer a portrait of an era, bridging two worlds—cold war and post–cold war—that are too often treated as separate and distinct.

In his pages those worlds meld in the personality of the author, a Zelig of US foreign policy. He had been the hardest of hard-line cold warriors but by the time he took control of the Pentagon in the wake of the disastrous Donald Rumsfeld in late 2006, he was seen as a white knight riding to the rescue, a fireman rushing in heroically to put out someone else’s conflagrations. This impression, as widely shared as it is misleading, dissipates as one reads the richer story he tells here; for “in part,” as Roger Morris, former National Security Council staffer for Richard Nixon, wrote shortly after Gates was announced as Rumsfeld’s successor, “it is his own work that Gates now faces as secretary of defense.”3


That work was the daily covert labor of the cold war. Confronting in late 2006 the Bush administration’s two roaring crises in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates moved first to circumscribe and define the goals, to make them more precise—and much more modest. In Iraq, he tells us,

I hoped we could stabilize the country in such a way that when US forces departed, the war there would not be viewed as a strategic defeat for the United States, or as a failure with global consequences.

If these words seem to ring a faint and distant bell, one need look back only as far as the country’s last “strategic defeat,” in Vietnam, where a preeminent goal of the Nixon administration became somehow to create, between the departure of American troops and the collapse of South Vietnam, a “decent interval.” Though that phrase was Henry Kissinger’s, the idea was an attempt to respond to a peril his predecessors had recognized. As early as 1965, John McNaughton, then Lyndon Johnson’s assistant secretary of defense, wrote that the goal of the war was “to avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).” Writing the following year, McNaughton was more explicit:

The present US objective in Vietnam is to avoid humiliation. The reasons we went into Vietnam to the present depth are varied; but they are now largely academic. Why we have not withdrawn is, by all odds, one reason. (1) To preserve our reputation as a guarantor….

McNaughton might have added (but didn’t feel he needed to) that at least as he saw it much was riding on the United States’ reputation “as guarantor”—the security of NATO, the alliance with Japan and other US friends around the Pacific, and ultimately the US nuclear guarantee. Vast stakes; group them all under the general concept of “credibility.” In defeat, how could the US remain credible in its worldwide commitments? What would prevent defeat in Vietnam from leading to collapse of US credibility on other fronts, bringing with it a toppling of “dominoes” and even an onslaught of direct challenges to US power?4

That the question has a metaphysical elusiveness did not make it any less real for US policymakers. And for Gates, first entering the CIA in 1966 and beginning his career as an analyst two years later—in between he served as an Air Force lieutenant at a Minuteman missile silo—this was not distant history but the governing reality of his early career. Indeed, an onslaught on all fronts is precisely what he believed he was facing when he worked in the White House on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s National Security Council staff during the mid-1970s, as the Soviets schemed to take advantage of the Americans’ post-Vietnam paralysis. As he writes in From the Shadows:

After watching from the Ford NSC the Soviet role in the final collapse of Vietnam, their actions in Angola, and their behavior earlier in the 1970s, it seemed apparent to me as I observed from the Carter NSC that the Soviets were continuing to press ahead in the Third World—tactically seizing opportunities, strategically exploiting US unwillingness to become involved again after Vietnam. Whether one agreed with Zbig’s proposed actions to raise the costs to the Soviets of this aggressive behavior, his analysis of the consequences—Soviet consolidation of their gains and leaping at the next opportunities—seemed obvious and irrefutable.

It is a revealing analysis, for it suggests the same refusal to distinguish core interests from peripheral ones that led to the Vietnam fiasco itself. In the backwash of the collapse of South Vietnam no large “dominoes” fell in Asia, as the Johnson and Nixon administrations had predicted. Gates points to the Soviet installation of revolutionary regimes in Africa (Angola, Ethiopia) and to the triumph of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. These showed Soviet ambition—and that of their Cuban allies; but it is hard to argue that the addition of these new clients in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America did much to change the balance of power. Still, Gates experienced the Carter years as—so his chapter title has it—“American Paralysis.”


At the White House, where the young CIA officer arrived in July 1974—a month before Nixon’s resignation—Gates “felt like a deckhand on the Titanic.” It was a period of “presidential weakness”—one that also formed, crucially, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.5 “Congress sought to capture for itself and from the President a coequal (and, at times, dominant) role in foreign affairs,” Gates writes—though he is quick to point out, looking back at his thirty-year-old self, that “even when a Presidency is politically besieged, there is nothing comparable to working at the White House.” Describing the sheer thrill of the place where, he tells us proudly, he would “eventually occupy four different offices in the West Wing under three Presidents,” Gates becomes again the midwestern Eagle Scout:


Abbas/Magnum Photos

Friday prayers, Tehran, 1980

The pace is frenetic and the hours impossible. Intrigue. Backstabbing. Ruthless ambition. Constant conflict. Informers. Leakers. Spies (at the White House from inside the US government). Egos as big as the surrounding monuments. Battles between Titans. Cabinet officers behaving like children. High-level temper tantrums. I would ultimately work in the White House for four Presidents and I saw it all. The struggles for pride and place, the preoccupying quest for “face-time”…with the President or even his most senior advisers, the cheap thrill of flashing a badge and walking through those massive gates as tourists look on and wonder who you are….

The constant pushing and shoving to get on lists. Lists for NSC meetings, Oval Office meetings, to get on Air Force One or the presidential helicopter (Marine One), State Dinner guest lists, participation in presidential foreign trips, access to the White House tennis court,…and countless more lists. Given the effort at every level on a daily basis to get on lists or improve one’s position on lists, it is amazing that as much work got done as it did.

In all that pushing and shoving, Gates must have more than held his own. He would remain at the White House as Nixon gave way to Ford, and with him his chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld’s young deputy, Dick Cheney. (Cheney, scarcely older than Gates, would succeed Rumsfeld as chief of staff, remaining far above Gates on those lists.) And it was safely installed at the White House that Gates would pass “the worst year in CIA’s history”: the annus horribilis of 1975 that brought the public stripping and humiliation of the agency during the hearings of the Church and Pike committees. South Vietnam and Cambodia fell to the Communists, Portugal underwent a revolution—which eventually rejected the Communists—and its African colony Angola was torn by civil war. Amid it all, “CIA’s senior officers were preoccupied with the multitude of investigations.” And at the end of these high-profile inquisitions, after the senators had finished posing with CIA-supplied poison dart guns and other spy paraphernalia, Gates writes,

CIA had few secrets left other than the names of sources and some of its technical collection capabilities. Certainly, there were few secrets about its operational activities. And when, by the end of the year, the investigations were over or winding down,…both the Church and Pike committees had to concede that CIA had not operated independently as a “rogue elephant,” that it had in fact been an operating arm of Presidents, and that its misdeeds—while real and at times egregious—had been far less horrific than portrayed….

It is, again, a revealing view. The charges that stung particularly were not that the CIA had committed “misdeeds”—assassinations and attempted assassinations, coups d’état, subversions of governments, as well as highly elaborate programs of domestic spying. What particularly disturbed Gates is the charge that the agency had operated outside the president’s control. Though the committees did show that senior officials usually knew of the CIA’s covert actions, at least in general terms, in fact the “plausible deniability” that often cloaked them meant that the chain of knowledge and responsibility was purposefully and, in some cases, irredeemably murky; and many of the operations were embarrassing and, indeed, “egregious” failures. Such charges, in any event, would not be risked again. “Steadily, during and after 1975,” Gates writes,

CIA would move from its exclusive relationship with the President to a position roughly equidistant between the Congress and the President…unwilling to act at presidential request without clearance from Congress.

Did this mean that, after the hearings, as Gates writes, “CIA became just another Washington bureaucracy, and self-protection—conscious or not—would be its hallmark”? An overstatement perhaps; but even in the most propulsive, “gloves off,” post–September 11 era, CIA officers refused to practice “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees without a formalized paper trail granting them before-the-fact absolution in the form of Justice Department memoranda stating that torture, all evidence to the contrary, was not in fact torture at all. This meant that when the music eventually stopped in this high-level game of musical chairs, the CIA would not be left without a chair. The consequences would be more grave. Self-protection, raised to this high art, incriminated, and incriminates still, an entire legal system.


During those “days of paralysis,” in the wake of the Vietnam defeat, our present world began. Its first glimmerings would appear in Tehran, a city, as we have seen, that Gates found in 1977 to be “the most tense I had ever experienced.” Did he pass these impressions on to his boss, Jimmy Carter, before the president raised his glass to the Shah during that state visit and famously toasted his nation as “an island of stability in a sea of turmoil”? One assumes not; in any case, as Tim Weiner remarks in his history of the CIA, the view that Iran was an “island of stability” had been “confirmed and repeated by the CIA’s spies and analysts for fifteen years beforehand. It was, in fact, the very phrase the shah used to describe himself.”6 Even after riots against the regime erupted in various parts of the country, the CIA held to its position, reporting in a draft National Intelligence Estimate in late 1978 that the Shah might survive for another decade. Within weeks he had fled the country.

The Shah had been, of course, the CIA’s man; in the agency’s early, halcyon days, after the young ruler had fled the country following the election by the parliament of the popular nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh in 1951, the covert operators had, two years later, returned him to the Peacock Throne in a coup—one of a series of early cold war covert actions that seemed to herald a new, low-cost, no fuss method of achieving the country’s foreign policy objectives. With the Shah’s return came the CIA-guided elaboration of a ruthless police state, underpinned by the agents of SAVAK, a ubiquitous, highly repressive secret intelligence apparatus to which the CIA largely outsourced its labors.

By the early 1970s President Nixon was proclaiming that the Shah was America’s “policeman of the Gulf”—the local exponent of the post-Vietnam Nixon Doctrine, which envisioned regional allies taking on, with US support, more of the local burdens of security. By the time American arms sales to Iran quintupled, the regime had begun to split apart at the seams. Despite the hundreds of American arms peddlers, military advisers, and intelligence hangers-on of every stripe flooding the country and hawking everything from F-16s to nuclear reactors, the CIA was the last to see the Islamic Revolution coming.

“The Soviets must have watched all of this with glee,” Gates writes. “A major US ally in a critical region of the world virtually overnight had become an implacable enemy.” If anything, this understates the case. The Islamic Revolution undermined the entire US-designed order in the Middle East, turning a status-quo power and critical ally into a strategic and ideologically determined enemy committed to undermining Saudi Arabia and the other conservative Sunni states of the Gulf. As became clear, Khomeini’s regime was ruthless and vicious—torturing and carrying out more executions than the Shah’s—and determined to expand its revolution to impose Islamic orthodoxy. Like the French Revolution two centuries before it, the Islamic Revolution seemed to put everything in its vicinity at risk, and much as the European powers rallied to strangle revolutionary France, so the United States and its allies turned to Iran’s traditional rival, Iraq, eventually “greenlighting,” or anyway refusing to “redlight,” Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Khomeini’s Iran.

As we look back today, this sequence of events seems brightly outlined in history. First the bloody warfare of the Iran–Iraq War of the 1980s, during which the United States increasingly supported Saddam Hussein with secret cash, weapons, and battlefield intelligence. Then the victorious but cash-starved Saddam’s reckless invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and President George H.W. Bush’s “Desert Storm” war, launched to extract him, while leaving him in power. Finally, George W. Bush’s post–September 11 Iraq War, launched to remove Saddam from power in Baghdad and to destroy his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

By the time Robert M. Gates, now a senior statesman and university president, came to the rescue as George Bush’s second secretary of defense in late 2006, determined to conclude the Iraq war in such a way that it “would not be viewed as a strategic defeat for the United States, or as a failure with global consequences,” tens of thousands had died and hundreds of billions of dollars had been spent, with no end in sight. If one had to choose a starting point for this chain of events, what better than the tense but inscrutable city of Tehran in 1977, over which the Shah presided as an “island of stability.” Gates had been there at the creation.


At about the same time as the Shah was fleeing Tehran, dealing the United States a strategic defeat that still reverberates in the region, the Carter administration began preparations, as one Pentagon official put it, to “suck…the Soviets into a Vietnamese[-like] quagmire” next door in Afghanistan. The Soviets were supporting a pro-Communist government in Kabul as shaky as the anti-Communist government of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon had been in the 1960s. As Gates emphasizes proudly in his memoir, the covert aid to the Mujahideen Holy Warriors in Afghanistan to bring down that government began well before the Soviet invasion:

The [key] meeting was finally held on July 3, 1979, and—almost six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan—Jimmy Carter signed the finding to help the Mujahedin covertly. It authorized support for the insurgent propaganda and other psychological operations in Afghanistan; establishment of radio access to the Afghan population through third-country facilities; and the provision either unilaterally or through third countries of support to the Afghan insurgents….

That day, Brzezinski later remarked, he wrote a note to Carter in which he explained to the president that “in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” And indeed six months later, on Christmas Eve, the Soviets invaded, sending 80,000 troops across the border. The United States responded with shocked outrage, imposing trade sanctions and canceling plans to attend the Moscow Olympics. Gates remarks that the invasion “was a watershed not only for the Soviets but also in resolving disagreements in the US government about what the Soviets were up to and how the United States should deal with them.” Another way to put this is that the invasion put an end to what was left of détente with the Soviets and fatally undermined those remaining in the US government—Gates’s bureaucratic rivals—who still supported it.

Less than a month later, President Carter proclaimed his Carter Doctrine, affirming that

an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

The sentence was written by Brzezinski, Gates’s boss, the man who had pushed through the covert aid to the Mujahideen, who had negotiated Saudi and Pakistani help in supporting them, and who had thus helped bring on the Soviet invasion itself. In 1998, a French interviewer provoked a memorable exchange in asking Brzezinski if he had any regrets:

Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.” Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

The chain of consequences did not stop there, of course, as Brzezinski well knew. To the question of whether he regretted “having supported Islamic fundamentalism, which has given arms and advice to future terrorists,” Brzezinski responded with another question: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”7

That was in 1998. Had they been posed three years later, perhaps the answers to these questions would not have seemed quite so self-evident. How far can one reasonably be expected to see along these chains of events? Should Brzezinski have been able to see in his mind’s eye those stepchildren of the Mujahideen he so proudly supported, those suicide warriors piloting their hijacked airliners into the towers of New York and the great sprawling headquarters of the Pentagon? Should those plotting the fall of Mossadegh and the restoration of the Shah have been able to gaze ahead twenty years to the Islamic Revolution, let alone to the ruins of contemporary Iraq? After a half-century of covert machinations, plotted by Gates and his colleagues, the consequences are all around us. After thousands of deaths and the spending of trillions of dollars, Iraq, at long last, has become an ally and vassal of the Iranians and also the home to the world’s most successful jihadist insurgency.

This insurgency, which began in the Sunni revolt set off by the US invasion and which is led by the group that now calls itself the Islamic State, controls a vast reach of territory stretching from Fallujah, forty miles west of Baghdad, to the suburbs of Aleppo in northeasern Syria. And in Syria, the regional confrontation launched with the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1978 goes on in a new configuration, with the Iranians and their Syrian and Lebanese allies who back Bashar al-Assad’s regime battling Saudi-backed, Gulf-backed, and (occasionally) American-backed Islamic rebels who are fighting to unseat him.

It is not beyond the imagination that if the Islamic revolt in Iraq grows stronger—as I write the militants have seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city—the United States will find itself joining the Iranians in Iraq to protect the al-Maliki government in Baghdad from the Islamic State, even as they in effect ally with the Islamic State against the Iranians to unseat the Assad regime in Damascus. Three decades of covert action can make for very strange bedfellows.

In early 2007, when Robert Gates returned to government to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense and confronted the smoldering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was indeed confronting his own work and its consequences—which I will examine in subsequent articles.

—July 11, 2014; this is the seventh in a series of articles.