Why Robert Gates is a Terrible Pick

By Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation
Posted on December 1, 2008, Printed on December 2, 2008
Barack Obama not only had the good judgment to oppose the war in Iraq but , as he told us earlier this year, “I want to end the mindset that got us into war.” So it is troubling that a man of such good judgment has asked Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense — and assembled a national security team of such narrow bandwidth. It is true that President Obama will set the policy. But this team makes it more difficult to seize the extraordinary opportunity Obama’s election has offered to reengage the world and reset America’s priorities. Maybe being right about the greatest foreign policy disaster in U.S. history doesn’t mean much inside the Beltway? How else to explain that not a single top member of Obama’s foreign policy/national security team opposed the war — or the dubious claims leading up to it?

The appointment of Hillary Clinton, who failed to oppose the war, has worried many. But I am more concerned about Gates. I spent the holiday weekend reading many of the speeches Hillary Clinton gave in her trips abroad as First Lady, especially those delivered at the UN Beijing Women’s Conference and the Vital Voices Conferences, and I believe she will carve out an important role as Secretary of State through elevating women’s (and girl’s) rights as human rights. As she said in Belfast in 1998, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” 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 the center of U.S. foreign policy role — and reduce the Pentagon‘s role.

It’s the appointment of Gates which has a dispiriting, stay-the-course feel to it. Some will argue, and I’ve engaged in my fair share of such arguments, that Gates will simply be carrying out Obama’s policies and vision. And a look at history shows that other great reform Presidents — Lincoln and Roosevelt — brought people into their cabinets who were old Washington hands or people they believed to be effective managers. Like Obama, they confronted historic challenges that compelled (and enabled) them to make fundamental change. But Gates will undoubtedly help to shape policy and determine which issues are given priority. And while Gates has denounced “the gutting” of America’s “soft power,” he has been vocally opposed to Obama’s Iraq withdrawal plan. And at a time when people like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are calling for steps toward a nuclear weapons free world (a position Obama has adopted), Gates has been calling for a new generation of nuclear weapons.

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 the foreign policy/national security team who would challenge him with some new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century? Isn’t the idea 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 Obama is really serious about changing the global perception of the U.S. — not just in Paris, London, Tokyo and Berlin but in the Middle East, the global South and the developing world — he would worry less about reassuring establishment stakeholders and the representatives of the tried, the true and the failed, and make some appointments that represent some genuinely new departures and new directions. Instead, as one longtime observer of U.S.-Russian relations reminded me the other day, in Gates, a veteran Cold Warrior, you have “an establishment figure with the longest institutional involvement in our failed Russia policies of anyone 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 of Washington experience.) What we need after eight ruinous years is experience informed by good judgment. What is gained by bringing in people who traffic in conventional wisdom and who have shown the kind of foreign policy timidity that acquiesced to disasters like the Iraq war?

Obama may believe that Gates will give him the cover and continuity he needs to carry out his planned withdrawal from Iraq. But so could many others, including Republicans like Chuck Hagel who, at least, opposed the Iraq war. By keeping Gates on Obama worsens the Democratic image on national security — sending the message that even Democrats agree that Democrats can’t run the military. And even more troubling for our future security, Gates has sounded ominous notes about how more U.S. troops can pacify Afghanistan. Speaking only days after a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the U.S. was caught in a “downward spiral” there, Gates asserted that there is “no reason to be defeatist or underestimate the opportunity to be successful in the long run.” Extricating the U.S. from one disastrous war to head into another will drain resources needed to fulfill Obama’s hopes and promises for economic growth, health care, energy independence and crowd out other international initiatives.

Of course, Obama still has an opportunity to change the mindset that got us into Iraq and, more important, he has a popular mandate to challenge and change failed policies and craft a smarter security policy for this century. But he’s sure making his work tougher by bringing people like Robert Gates on board.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.