Barack Obama not only had the good judgment to oppose the war in Iraqbut , as he told us earlier this year, “I want to end the mindset thatgot us into war.” So it is troubling that a man of such good judgmenthas asked Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense–and assembleda national security team of such narrow bandwidth. It is true thatPresident Obama will set the policy. But this team makes it moredifficult to seize the extraordinary opportunity Obama’s election hasoffered to reengage the world and reset America’s priorities. Maybebeing right about the greatest foreign policy disaster in US historydoesn’t mean much inside the Beltway? How else to explain that not asingle top member of Obama’s foreign policy/national security teamopposed the war–or the dubious claims leading up to it?
The appointment of Hillary Clinton, who failed to oppose the war, hasworried many. But I am more concerned about Gates. I spent the holidayweekend reading many of the speeches Hillary Clinton gave in her tripsabroad as First Lady, especially those delivered at the UN BeijingWomen’s Conference and the Vital Voices Conferences, and I believe shewill carve out an important role as Secretary of State through elevatingwomen’s (and girl’s) rights as human rights. As she said in Belfast in1998, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are humanrights.” That is not to diminish her hawkish record on several issues,but as head of State she is in a position to put diplomacy back at thecenter of US foreign policy role–and reduce the Pentagon’s.
It’s the appointment of Gates which has a dispiriting, stay-the-coursefeel to it. Some will argue, and I’ve engaged in my fair share of sucharguments, that Gates will simply be carrying out Obama’s policies andvision. And a look at history shows that other great reformPresidents–Lincoln and Roosevelt–brought people into theircabinets who were old Washington hands or people they believed to beeffective managers. Like Obama, they confronted historic challenges thatcompelled (and enabled) them to make fundamental change. But Gates willundoubtedly help to shape policy and determine which issues are givenpriority. And while Gates has denounced “the gutting” of America’s “softpower,” he has been vocally opposed to Obama’s Iraq withdrawal plan. Andat a time when people like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are callingfor steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons (a position Obama hasadopted), Gates has been calling for a new generation of nuclearweapons.
For Obama, who’s said he wants to be challenged by his advisors,wouldn’t it have made sense to include at least one person on theforeign policy/national security team who would challenge him with somenew and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century? Isn’t theidea of a broader bandwidth of ideas also at the heart of this ballyhooed”team of rivals” stuff?
Powerful establishment voices have been quick to praise the continuity,expertise and competence of Obama’s team. But if President-elect Obamais really serious about changing the global perception of the US–notjust in Paris, London, Tokyo and Berlin but in the Middle East, theglobal South and the developing world–he would worry less aboutreassuring establishment stakeholders and the representatives of thetried, the true and the failed, and make some appointments thatrepresent some genuinely new departures and new directions. Instead, asone longtime observer of US-Russian relations reminded me the other day,in Gates, a veteran Cold Warrior, you have “an establishment figure withthe longest institutional involvement in our failed Russia policies ofanyone in DC.”
And with all the talk about the importance of foreign policy experience,why is there so little attention paid to the quality of that experience?(Let’s not forget, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had quite a bit ofWashington experience.) What we need after eight ruinous years isexperience informed by good judgment. What is gained by bringing inpeople who traffic in conventional wisdom and who have shown the kind offoreign policy timidity that acquiesced to disasters like the Iraq war?
Obama may believe that Gates will give him the cover and continuity heneeds to carry out his planned withdrawal from Iraq. But so could manyothers, including Republicans like Chuck Hagel who, at least, opposedthe Iraq war. By keeping Gates on Obama worsens the Democratic imageon national security— sending the message that even Democrats agreethat Democrats can’t run the military. And even more troubling for ourfuture security, Gates has sounded ominous notes about how more UStroops can pacify Afghanistan. Speaking only days after a NationalIntelligence Estimate concluded that the US was caught in a “downwardspiral” there, Gates asserted that there is “no reason to be defeatistor underestimate the opportunity to be successful in the long run.”Extricating the US from one disastrous war to head into another willdrain resources needed to fulfill Obama’s hopes and promises foreconomic growth, health care, energy independence and crowd out otherinternational initiatives.
Of course, Obama still has an opportunity to change the mindset that gotus into Iraq and, more important, he has a popular mandate to challengeand change failed policies and craft a smarter security policy for thiscentury. But he’s sure making his work tougher by bringing people likeRobert Gates on board.