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Robert Gates, the “moderate” and “realist,” speaks out

Thinking it Through

D r. Robert Gates was the 22nd secretary of defense. This week his book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” will be published by Knopf. His excerpted comments in the Wall Street Journal(http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304617404579306851526222552)last week have generated considerable political controversy, and not without reason. All the major players in the national security matters that he dealt with between 2006 and 2011 came under his withering attacks, albeit delivered with a large dose of even-handedness.

I will take up Secretary Gate’s specific criticisms in due course. My main concern, however, is with the perspective from which Gates analyzes the Washington scene. He is the self-proclaimed “realist” who in his Journal piece also embraced the role of “moderate.” If a once-powerful figure is going to unload on the men and women with whom he served, the safest position is the one occupied by the man who professes to eschew partisanship.

No one in his piece is identified by political party, which is consistent with Gates’s supposedly non-partisan perspective. Indeed, he seems genuinely shocked — shocked — that politics has had anything to do with the management of our wars. Like David Stockman, young budget guru for President Reagan, who had a similar experience, Gates distances himself from people who have narrow interests.

Well and good, but since when have narrow interests not been a problem? He singles out congresspersons who fight tenaciously for their home district military bases and contractors while carping about the continuation of the Iraq war, without mentioning the relevant fact that Democrats held control of both houses of Congress during most of his tenure.

Typically leading figures in the government hold their fire until the issues with which they were most closely identified have faded from view, but circumstances may alter cases. The collapsing Obama foreign policy may be reason enough for a man once on the inside to speak out the internal machinations of an incompetent or misguided administration.

But we can be sure that this disaster will not arrested by someone who believes, or professes to believe, that the problem is a lack of realism or moderation, or too much politics, rather than the real cause, which is a covert real zeal for the abandonment of America’s leading role in the world.

The differences between George Bush and Barack Obama are not matters of leadership style, however relevant they may be in the day-to-day management of national security. Gates hints at the differences, which a person less obsessed with his own reputation would have more capaciously documented, when he notes that Obama had little confidence that the Afghanistan surge he agreed to in 2011 (sought by the theater commander) would actually succeed.

The lack of confidence was already on display when Obama was serving in the Senate, carping from the moment he took office at Bush’s Iraq “surge” in 2006 that ultimately succeeded. The junior senator professed to make a distinction between the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war, which contrary to Gates, was not based on “style” or “politics” but by a more fundamental desire to “transform” a nation he regarded as hopelessly imperialistic, not to mention racist, sexist and homophobic.

“Realism” evidently requires reining in any impulse to speak plainly about what difference one’s political views make in a nation continually prevented by the Democrats from acting in its own best interests and in conformity with its fundamental principles.

It has become conventional wisdom to blame our nation’s difficulties on politics, or worse, “polarization,” which invariably entails spinning nostalgic tales about better times when, despite their differences, Republicans and Democrats, “reached across the aisle” to solve national problems. Democrats “reminisce” in that way whenever they fear Republicans might challenge their hegemony.

But they know better. They remember the “good ole’ days” in the 1930s and the 1960s when they had overwhelming majorities and thereby enacted massive New Deal and Great Society programs, and ultimately international retreat. They deplore every day of Republican dominance — fortunately, very few — and promote bipartisanship as a tactic to put those bad days behind them.

We should be grateful to Robert Gates for giving us a peek inside the Obama Administration, which can’t end soon enough. If he’s shocked that the President and his Secretary of State sacrificed national security to their political ambitions, that’s fine, as long as the rest of us are “realistic” enough to know there never was a time when ambitions were irrelevant and, more to the point, that they must be married to the right policies if those policies are to succeed.

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at rhreeb@verizon.net


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