At last summer's debate on Iraq, Cheney urged the president to resist the Democrats' call for troop withdrawals and to prolong the surge indefinitely. But the Join Chiefs argued that they didn't have the troops to sustain the surge beyond the summer of 2008. Gates made a more political point: that if there were no prospects for gradual but substantial troop withdrawals, popular support for the war would evaporate, and the next president would probably pull out all the troops as quickly as possible, resulting in Iraq's potential collapse. On the plane from Fort Hood, Gates spelled out his position. "We need bipartisan support for a prolonged presence in Iraq," he said. "But to do that, we need to demonstrate that we're drawing down to lower levels." He recalled watching one of the early Democratic presidential debates. The moderator asked the candidates if they would promise to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2013, the end of the first term. The three candidates with the highest poll ratings all declined to make that pledge. Gates remembered saying to himself, 'My work here is done."That satisfaction is sure to drive proponents of a quick withdrawal bats. But those appalled by McCain's talk of a 100-year presence and by Bush's attempt to lock in the infrastructure of a long-term occupation should look closely at Gates' more qualified and nuanced support for the surge, and the long experience that brought him to it. Points to consider:
1) If Gates seeks to steer a Democratic Congress and likely future Democratic President away from a quick troop withdrawal, he also seeks to channel Democratic pressure to help force political action on the Iraqis. Very early in his tenure, when Bush partisans were crying treason at Democrats pushing for a quick withdrawal, Gates said that Congressional debate on war financing put useful pressure on the Iraqi government.
2) Gates is a master at deploying countervailing pressures in this manner. In Afghanistan, he is working on both the Europeans and the Pakistanis to win more effective support for war against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Frustrated by the unwillingness of NATO countries including Germany to place troops at risk, Gates has been uncharacteristically confrontational, charging that some countries are not willing to fight and die, and he is now is appealing directly to the European public not to lump the war in Afghanistan together with the war in Iraq as an American misadventure, but rather to recognize that conditions in Afghanistan directly affect their security. "'I think they combine the two,'" he said, according the AP(2/8). "'Many of them I think have a problem with our involvement in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan and don't understand the very different — for them — very different kind of threat' posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan, as opposed to the militant group in Iraq that goes by the same name and is thought to be led by foreign terrorists linked to al-Qaida." There is a remarkable implicit admission here that Europeans are justified in considering Iraq an American debacle but that they should differentiate and recognize Afghanistan as a core NATO mission. When Gates is confrontational, the pressure is highly calculated and tempered by recognition of opposing perspectives.
On the other side of the Afghan border, January 25, the FT reported Gates saying that the U.S. would consider joint military operations with the Pakistanis inside Pakistan if asked - notwithstanding that we haven't been asked. “We remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis and to partner with them to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations, should they desire to do so.”
Gates does not want to lose in Iraq -- to see it revert to full-scale civil war. But his primary focus is al Qaeda. So he understands the imperative to reduce our presence in Iraq as quickly as possible. The future viability of the military also requires a drawdown. Kaplan reports that Gates told a Texas Chamber of Commerce meeting, "The people who encourage young people to go into the military are less positive than they used to be...Until we reach the point where joining the Army doesn't mean an automatic assignment to Iraq, we'll have a challenge."
3) Gates has also played point-counterpoint with regard Iran. According to Kaplan, Gates was a major force in getting the NIE on Iran released. But having used that bludgeon to avert the catastrophe of a preemptive strike on Iran, he is now tacking back quite sensibly and "has since publicly stressed the less assuring aspects of the estimate -- that Iran is still enriching uranium and may resume the weapons program at any time" (see Gates Validates, 12/5/07 ).
4) Triangulation, Gates style, is rooted in his experience in five prior administrations, particularly his role as Deputy National Security Advisor under Brent Scowcroft in George W. Bush's Administration. Gates is not particularly modest in portraying Scowcroft and himself as masters of orchestrating debate between national security principals, honest brokers effectively controlling presidential access, and forgers of administration consensus. While Gates emphasizes trust and open debate, Scowcroft, in Kaplan's article, characterizes his own role and Gates' as one of, shall we say, steerage: "Before his meetings, Bob would come in and ask, 'How do we want this meeting to end up?' He and I would figure out what we wanted. And sure enough, it would end up exactly that way. And everybody loved him. They all came out of the meeting thinking that they'd come up with the solution." (One of the happy campers in the N.S.C. Deputies Committee that Gates chaired was a certain Paul Wolfowitz. And one of the "strong individuals who ran State, Defense, CIA, and the other key institutions of national security" who, according to Gates, "trusted Scowcroft as no other National Security Adviser has been trusted -- to represent them and their views to the President fairly, to report to him on meetings accurately, to facilitate rather than block their access to the President" was Dick Cheney.)
5) More broadly, Gates' approach to policymaking is rooted in his view of the breakup of the Soviet Union as a bipartisan success spanning several decades. In his book, he portrays each of the five presidents he worked under as tacking a course between hawks and doves among their senior advisors, to varying degrees maintaining military pressure while seizing any negotiating opportunities available. He gives Carter ample credit for beginning the Soviet unraveling process - by his emphasis on human rights, and by his late beginning of a military buildup and support for Afghan resistance. He also recognizes the role of Congress: "The obstructionism and complicating role of Congress...did have a useful function. I sat in the Situation Room in secret meetings for nearly twenty years under five Presidents, and all I can say is that some awfully crazy schemes might well have been approved had everyone present not known and expect hard questions, debate, and criticism from the Hill. And when, on a few occasions, Congress was kept in the dark, and such schemes did proceed, it was nearly always to the lasting regret of the Presidents involved. Working with the Congress was never easy for Presidents, but then, under the Constitution, it wasn't supposed to be."
6) Gates bolsters his credibility by taking stances that don't boost his institutional interests. Time reports this week that he is "putting a damper on pressure from his own Air Force for Congress to buy more F-22 fighters ." The F-22 is a high-tech fighter "principally for use in 'near-peer' combat,'" i.e., for eventual combat with China, which has replaced the Soviet Union as a prospective major league foe. Gates wants to buy half the number his generals recommend. Late last year, in a speech at Kansas State University, he astonished Pentagon observers by telling students that the U.S. needed to boost the State Department's budget -- that is, redress the balance between hard power and soft power.
For all Gates' skillful piloting, Kaplan rightly notes that there may be no middle course in Iraq:
[Gates] added that it's 'important to send the Iraqis a message: that we're going to be coming home, and it's time for them to step up to the plate.' But on his trip to Baghdad, he was confronted with the gnawing question: If the Iraqis don't, or can't, 'step up to the plate,' should we come home anyway? And if the troops don't start coming home at a faster clip, if they stay embroiled in sectarian conflicts that the Iraqis do nothing to settle, what happens to the bipartisan support that Gates has sought as his highest priority? Gates is very skillful at controlling a bureaucracy, but a war is something else. As Gates himself said on the plan from Fort Hood, once a conflict starts, the statesmen -- people like him -- lose control.
In other words, to Powell's pottery barn rule -- if you break it you own it -- add the Humpty Dumpty rule -- if you break it, you may not be able to fix it. One irony that may thwart Gates is that his book, published in 1995, describes in detail a foreign policy practice that worked across five administrations -- contentiously and creakily, but effectively -- and that, in his telling, worked most effectively under George H. W. Bush. It also frames perfectly, by negation (years before the fact), how that practice broke down under W., as the Cheney lauded as a team player by Gates hijacked the decision-making process. Gates may have done much to repair that process. But as Kaplan suggests, he may not be able to control the outcome of decisions made while the process was broken.