It’s time to fire Robert Gates.
True, it was Obama who made the decision to escalate the war. And by all accounts, the president was comfortable with the decision he made, having spent two years defending the idea that the United States should intensify its commitment to the “right war.” At the same time, however, Obama was under enormous pressure from the military, from Gates, and from other hawks to acquiesce to General Stanley McChrystal’s call for 40,000 troops. For those who oppose the war in Afghanistan, firing the president isn’t an option. But firing Gates is. Over the course of the next few months, and up to 2011, the battle for Obama’s mind on Afghanistan will be waged on a number of fronts. Doves will have to work hard to guarantee that Obama seeks a political settlement, negotiations with the insurgents (including the odious Taliban). They will have to work hard to persuade the president not to go down the path of escalating the war still further into Pakistan. And they will have to work hard to convince Obama not to swallow hole the ubiqitous counterinsurgency (COIN) doctine that McChrystal and Co. advocate. All of that starts with Gates, and getting rid of Gates can be a crucial marker in that fight.
When he was selected, many analysts — including me — were dismayed by the choice. Not only was Gates a hawkish Republican with a checkered record, including well-documented manipulation of intelligence about the Soviet Union during his CIA career in the 1980s, but by choosing a Republican Obama was giving in to the canard that Democrats are weak on national security and defense. By selecting Gates, Obama was saying, in effect, “I need a conservative Republican to be my interlocutor with the generals.”
At the time of his selection, it was rumored that Gates would serve only a year or so, as a kind of transitional figure. But Gates is a wily, bureaucratic infighter, and he knows the game. No doubt he wants to stay on.
To be sure, Gates is not a neoconservative. He has long advocated the realist-centrist view of Iran, he supports negotiations with Tehran, and he was a member of the realist-centrist Iraq Study Group convened by James Baker and Lee Hamilton in early 2006. (That body, you’ll recall, called for a year-long drawdown of US forces in Iraq and for talks with Iran to support it.) But Gates is a hawk on Afghanistan, and his recent role in the Afghan policy review has been pernicious at best.
In fact, it was Gates who engineered the rise of General McChrystal. Gates, sources say, was the moving force behind the dismissal of the plodding but competent US commander in Afghanistan, David McKiernan, last spring, replacing him with McChrystal, the chief advocate of a nation-building, long war COIN program in the military, along with General David Petraeus, the Centcom commander. Though Obama signed off on the appointment of McChrystal, the president was only dimly aware of the politics of the choice, including McChrystal’s intended strategic shift in Afghan policy.