Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Gates to mend fences

The new US defense secretary Robert Gates took office yesterday with a private swearing-in ceremony at the White House followed by a formal public one at the Pentagon. Prompted by Vice-President Cheney, Gates swore that he would support and defend the constitution of the US against all enemies foreign and domestic. Gates, the new boss of 2.5 million members of the US military, said that Iraq was his biggest priority. "Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come,” he said. Gates said he intends to travel to Iraq “quite soon”.

Gates made the comments in an address to the president on completion of the ceremony. In another statement that could be interpreted as a judgement on the style of his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, he said “the key to successful leadership, in my view, is to involve in the decision-making process early and often those who ultimately must carry out the decisions”. Gates also acknowledged that Afghanistan was a “pressing concern”.

The 63 year old Gates is a former CIA director and long-time associate of the Bush family. He was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to attend the College of William and Mary public university in Williamsburg, Virginia. He graduated in 1965 with a degree in European history. While still at university, he was recruited to join the CIA. Despite his nascent intelligence career, he was drafted into the air force during the Vietnam war. He was posted to Strategic Air Command for two years before returning full-time to the CIA in 1969. He took a five year sabbatical during the 1970s to serve on the White House national security staff during the Ford and Carter administrations. He returned to the agency in 1979 and rose through the ranks until finally taking the helm in the latter days of Bush 41’s presidency.

Gates was acting director of the CIA during deputy director for intelligence (DDI) from 1982 to 1986. This was during the height of the Iran-Contra scandal. Because of his senior status, Gates was close to many figures who played significant roles in the Iran/contra affair and was in a position to have known of their activities. He was investigated by the office of the independent counsel in 1991. The investigation became public knowledge around the same time as his appointment as head of the CIA. Gates consistently maintained he was unaware of Oliver North’s operational role in supporting the contras though the two had met as early as 1982. But despite inconsistencies in his testimony, the council decided not to press charges. The report stated that “in the end, although Gates's actions suggested an officer who was more interested in shielding his institution from criticism and in shifting the blame to the NSC than in finding out the truth, there was insufficient evidence to charge Gates with a criminal endeavour”.

Bush’s defeat to Clinton in the 1992 election spelt the end of Gates reign at the top of the CIA. He retired in 1993 and worked as an academic and lecturer. In 1996 he wrote his autobiography “From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War”. The book revealed how 1983 was the most dangerous year in U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations and that both the CIA and KGB sponsored countless "black operations" designed to embarrass and discredit the other side. The book also revealed that the CIA predicted the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev but he ignored their warnings.

In 1999 he was appointed dean of the government school at Texas A&M University, one of the largest universities in the United States and home of the George Bush presidential library. After three years, he was appointed president of the university. During his tenure, Gates added almost 500 new faculty positions and oversaw dramatic increases in enrolment of blacks and Hispanics. President Bush wanted Gates to be his new intelligence czar in 2005 but Gates turned down the role which went to John Negroponte instead.

But this year another door opened. With the US increasingly bogged down in Iraq and the body count rising daily (2,800 deaths by November 2006), time was running out on Donald Rumsfeld. Although he surrounded himself with fellow ideologues at the Pentagon, Rumsfeld’s abrasive style alienated decision-makers in Congress and in the military. Many called for his head in the months leading up to the midterm elections. The election result which saw the Republicans lose control of congress and the senate was the final straw. On the day after the election, Rumsfeld resigned. Bush immediately nominated Gates to fill the role.

The Bush administration is looking for Gates to provide new momentum for its Iraq strategy. Gates will have to make the decision whether to cut back on US military involvement or else vastly increase the numbers in order to force an outcome. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell doubts the latter strategy will work. He said the US had already surged its troop numbers in June without success. Gates will also face pressure to implement some of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraqi Study Group which released its report earlier this month. The report recommended a phased withdrawal of American troops and commencing dialogue with Iran and Syria. Bush said he would not accept every recommendation but promised that he would take the report seriously. Just how seriously will become apparent when Gates gets down to work.

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