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.
As an important story in the Wall Street Journal pointed out this week, Gates is the key architect of the escalation strategy. He was, the Journal notes, “focused on Afghanistan for decades”:
“During a stint as the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s, Mr. Gates helped oversee the covert U.S. effort to funnel weaponry and money to the Islamic militants battling the former Soviet Union.”
The story adds:
“When Mr. Obama began weighing whether to retain Mr. Gates, the defense chief’s belief that the U.S. should send more troops to Afghanistan was a key factor in the president’s decision to keep him at the Pentagon, administration officials say.”
“Mr. Gates began putting his personal stamp on the Afghan war in May, when he unexpectedly ousted the top U.S. commander there, Gen. David McKiernan, and replaced him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal. At the same time, Mr. Gates helped shift the overall U.S. mission in Afghanistan to counterinsurgency, which focuses on protecting local civilians from militant intimidation instead of hunting down insurgents.
“When the administration began reviewing its Afghan policy this fall, Mr. Gates flew to a Belgian airbase for a secret meeting with Gen. McChrystal, who told him he needed roughly 40,000 troops to reverse the Taliban’s momentum.”
And it concludes:
“‘Everyone talks about Afghanistan is Obama’s war, but it’s really Gates’s war now in a way that it never was before,’ said a military official with recent experience in Afghanistan who is supportive of Mr. Gates’s strategy. ‘Gates has the commander he wants, the troops he wants, and the strategy he wants. He’ll get a lot of credit if we win, and a lot of the blame if we don’t.'”
By calling for Gates’ ouster, I’m not letting Obama off the hook . But for progressive Democrats, and for members of Congress opposed to Obama’s decision, getting rid of Gates is a crucial pressure point that can help ensure that the 2011 timetable for starting to pull US forces out of the war stands firm.
According to the Los Angeles Times, which published the first full account of the decision-making process leading up to Obama’s West Point speech, Gates resisted the setting of the 2011 timetable, whose idea came from Obama himself. Reports the Times:
“The date was first discussed as part of internal planning. The idea of sending a public signal to enemies and allies alike that the U.S. was already planning a pullout was of particular concern to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, a key member of the war council.”
The article adds that Gates weighed in constantly in opposition to the idea of setting a timetable for withdrawal:
“Gates had doubts about announcing the date for starting withdrawals. In the past, he had been opposed to such public deadlines.
“Several times during the strategy review, Gates had spoken with administration officials about the 1989 decision to halt U.S. aid to Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew, and about the long-term damage it did to American standing in the region. He did not want the Afghans or Pakistanis to feel that they were being abandoned for a second time.”
Gates’ role is being defended by various conservative and neoconservative players, who’ve been chortling with joy over Obama’s decision to escalate the war, even as they denounce the idea of 2011 pullout date. Consider the following from Stephen Hayes, the rght-wing analyst who wrote a fawning, authorized biography of Vice President Cheney, and who scribbles for the execrable Weekly Standard:
“White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seems to have a real problem with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Either that or Gibbs is so dim that he doesn’t realize that when he misrepresents Afghanistan troop requests at the end of the Bush administration he’s trashing Gates — President Obama’s top defense policymaker.
“On Tuesday night, President Obama made the following claim: ‘Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. That’s why, shortly after taking office, I approved a long-standing request for more troops.’
“At the White House briefing yesterday, ABC’s Jake Tapper pressed Robert Gibbs about the claim and asked him to specify when such requests took place.
“Gibbs: ‘Again, what President Obama was talking about were additional resource requests that came in during 2008, which we’ve discussed in here.’
“Robert Gates was Defense Secretary in 2008. Barack Obama kept him in that job and, according to numerous accounts of his decision to sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, relied heavily on advice from Gates in coming up with his new strategy. So is Gates to blame for these resource requests that did not arrive?
“Gibbs is right about one thing. Those requests from 2008 had been discussed at the briefings before. What he failed to mention is that he was wrong back then, too. A Pentagon official close to Gates, speaking of the White House claims, told The Weekly Standard, ‘on the facts, they’re wrong.'”
It’s time for Gates to go. Perhaps Hayes might write a glowing biography of Gates, too.