Saturday, January 11, 2014

History is much more nuanced than the partisan reaction to Gates

One of the things that often frustrates me is the way our partisanship tries to make everything so black and white while reality is much more nuanced. That has been my reaction to much of the reporting I've seen about Robert Gates' recent book. History is too often distorted by the need to either raise Gates up as a hero or make him the villain. In the end, I don't care much about how people view Robert Gates. What I do care about is that we get history right. So let me give you a couple of examples that I think are important to set the record straight.

From the right, we're hearing charges that Gates is suggesting that President Obama never supported his own policy in Afghanistan - and therefore put our troops in harms way for a surge he never believed in. That is both a distortion of history and what Gates actually said. We all know that when Obama ran for president in 2008, he made it clear that we needed to get out of the war in Iraq and focus our attention on Afghanistan. Whether you agreed or disagreed with this position, he never hid his intentions to deploy more troops there. What Gates revealed was that at some point, President Obama recognized that the strategy wasn't working.
Gates says what happened here really was the president approved a strategy in 2009, added troops in Afghanistan, thought and hoped it would work but became skeptical later on.
A historically-based critique might be that he should have known better in the first place. I don't see that this country has ever figured out an effective counter-insurgency military strategy. And then we could discuss what President Obama's alternatives were at the time. That's the hard one. But trying to use what Gates said to suggest that the President didn't believe in his own strategy from the beginning is simply an attempt to distort history in order to score partisan political points.

From the left we're hearing that Gates was just a holdover from the Bush/Cheney era and that President Obama should have known better than to keep him on the team. Gates' book is testament to the fact that there is an element of truth to this one. But history is a bit more nuanced than it is often portrayed.

What we know about George W. Bush's second term is that at some point, George HW Bush's "realists" decided to take on the Cheney/Rumsfeld faction in the administration. On Nov. 8, 2006 Rumsfeld resigned and Gates was appointed as his replacement. At this point, we don't know much about what when on behind the scenes on this shake-up, but here's a tidbit:
A source told NBC News’ military analyst Bill Arkin that prior to the [2006 midterm] election, Vice President Dick Cheney argued with other politicians over whether Rumsfeld should stay. White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and others said Rumsfeld should be removed, the source said. Both sides agreed the decision would be made after the election, when Bush would make the final call based on how Republicans did.

According to the source, Bush agreed Rumsfeld should be removed after seeing election results favoring Democrats. Cheney then lost another argument, protesting Gates’ nomination as Rumsfeld’s replacement.
Here's just a peek at how Gates referred to all that in his new book:
By early 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney was the hawkish outlier on the team, with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and me in broad agreement.
Up until he was chosen to be Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates had served on the Iraq Study Group - a bipartisan commission formed by Congress in March 2006 to assess the situation in Iraq and make recommendations.
Among [the recommendations] were the beginning of a phased withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq and direct US dialogue with Syria and Iran over Iraq and the Middle East...The group further described the situation in Afghanistan as so disastrous that they may need to divert troops from Iraq in order to help stabilize the country.
Hmmmm....does that remind you of anyone else's recommendations? It pretty much mirrors the platform on which Barack Obama ran for president.

Its true that President Obama has always wanted to emulate Lincoln's "team of rivals." And that likely influenced his decision to keep Gates on as Secretary of Defense. But its also clear that Gates was brought into the Bush administration to basically implement the same strategy Obama had embraced on these two wars. I'm sure that continuity of that strategy played a large role in his decision. That doesn't do much to feed the partisan battles that dominate our discourse. But its history nonetheless.

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