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Over the past few months, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has generated accolades from FCM pundits—like the Washington Post’s David Ignatius—that read like letters of recommendation to graduate school. This comes as no surprise to those of us familiar with Gates’ dexterity in orchestrating his own advancement. What DOES come as a surprise is the recurring rumor that President-elect Barack Obama may decide to put new wine in old wineskins by letting Gates stay.
What can Barack Obama be thinking?I suspect that those in Obama’s circle who are promoting Gates may be the same advisers responsible for Obama’s most naïve comment of the recent presidential campaign: that the "surge" of U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007-08 "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
Succeeded? You betcha—the surge was a great success in terms of the administration’s overriding objective. The aim was to stave off definitive defeat in Iraq until President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney could swagger from the West Wing into the western sunset on Jan. 20, 2009. As author Steve Coll has put it, "The decision [to surge] at a minimum guaranteed that his [Bush’s] presidency would not end with a defeat in history’s eyes. By committing to the surge [the president] was certain to at least achieve a stalemate."
According to Bob Woodward, Bush told key Republicans in late 2005 that he would not withdraw from Iraq, "even if Laura and [first-dog] Barney are the only ones supporting me." Later, Woodward made it clear that Bush was well aware in fall 2006 that the U.S. was losing. Suddenly, with some fancy footwork, it became Laura, Barney—and Robert Gates. And at the turn of 2006-07 the short-term fix was in.
But Please, No More Troops!
By the fall of 2006 it had become unavoidably clear that a new course had to be chosen and implemented in Iraq, and virtually every sober thinker seemed opposed to sending more troops. The senior military, especially CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid and his man on the ground, Gen. George Casey, emphasized that sending still more U.S. troops to Iraq would simply reassure leading Iraqi politicians that they could relax and continue to take forever to get their act together.
Here, for example, is Gen. Abizaid’s answer at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nov. 15, 2006 to Sen. John McCain, who had long been pressing vigorously for sending 20,000 more troops to Iraq:
Senator McCain, I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the corps commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq? And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad sent a classified cable to Washington warning that "proposals to send more U.S. forces to Iraq would not produce a long-term solution and would make our policy less, not more, sustainable," according to a New York Times retrospective on the surge by Michael R. Gordon published on Aug. 31, 2008.
Khalilzad was arguing, unsuccessfully, for authority to negotiate a political solution with the Iraqis.
There was also the establishment-heavy Iraq Study Group, created by Congress and led by Republican stalwart James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton. After months of policy review during 2006—with Gates as a member—it issued a final report on Dec. 6, 2006, which began with the ominous sentence, "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." The report called for:
"A change in the primary mission of US. Forces in Iraq that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly… By the first quarter of 2008…all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq."
Robert Gates, who was CIA director under President George H. W. Bush and then president of Texas A&M, had returned to the Washington stage as a member of the Iraq Study Group. While on the ISG, he evidenced no disagreement with its emerging conclusions—at least not until Bush asked him in early November if he might like to become secretary of defense.
Never one to let truth derail ambition, Gates suddenly saw things quite differently. After Bush announced his nomination on Nov. 8, Gates quit the ISG, but kept his counsel about its already widely reported recommendations.
Gates to the Rescue
Gates would do what he needed to do to become defense secretary. At his confirmation hearing on Dec. 5, he obscured his opinions by telling the Senate Armed Services Committee only that "all options are on the table in terms of Iraq." Many Democrats, however, assumed that Gates would help persuade Bush and Cheney to implement the ISG’s recommendation of a troop drawdown.