The media has been abuzz with reports that one of Barack Obama’s first major gestures of bipartisanship could be keeping Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his position for a year or two to help with the transition in dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President-elect Obama’s willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints and reach across the aisle is refreshing after eight years of George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” mentality. Both Democrats and Republicans have been praising the possible pick, citing that he’s no Donald Rumsfeld, and has “never been a registered Republican.”
While Robert Gates is clearly intelligent and is, in fact, no Donald Rumsfeld, Obama’s campaign promise wasn’t “slightly less offensive than the status quo.” Barack Obama campaigned on a drastically different approach to US foreign policy, one that is desperately needed to improve US security and our reputation in the word.
To understand why, here are my top six reasons why Gates is not the man to carry out Obama’s foreign policy vision:
1. He failed Obama’s primary foreign policy test. Throughout the presidential campaign, Barack Obama stood out from other front-runners as the one who had the foresight to see that the war in Iraq was a mistake. He built his foreign policy resume around the idea that superior judgment is a key qualification, and those who supported the unnecessary and tragic war in Iraq lack that judgment. Gates failed that test.
2. He opposes a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. Unfortunately, Gates is not the only person close to Obama who supported the initial invasion in Iraq. What sets Gates apart, however, is that he still opposes the withdrawal plan that was a centerpiece of President-elect Obama’s campaign. Gates even claimed in 2007 that a resolution opposing Bush’s surge “certainly emboldens the enemy.” It takes a vivid imagination to see Gates actively implementing—and strongly defending—Obama’s plan to end the war in Iraq. Some have even gone so far as to speculate that Obama’s tendency toward picking Gates indicates that he may be willing to bend on this plan, which would be a tragic mistake we can't afford to make.
3. He wants to modernize our nuclear arsenal and create a new generation of nuclear weapons. In October, Gates gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and painted a picture of an uncertain world where nuclear weapons will continue to be a centerpiece of US security strategy. He aggressively pushed for development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, an Orwellian-named program that actually amounts to a new generation of nuclear weapons. This is despite that fact that Congress has slashed the funding for this program two years in a row based on arguments that it’s unnecessary and sends a dangerous message to the international community. Like Cold Warriors Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Shultz and Sam Nunn, Obama has embraced a vision of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide, and he needs a Defense Secretary who is on board with that vision.
4. He has a history of politicizing intelligence. Yet another tough test learned through the invasion of Iraq was the danger of manipulating intelligence to serve political ends. When Gates was first nominated as Defense Secretary in 2006, 24-year CIA veteran Melvin Goodman testified that Gates had helped manipulate intelligence to serve the Reagan administration’s hawkish position on the Soviet Union, even linking them to a papal assassination plot. In an interview with Mother Jones Magazine, Goodman stated, “For me, basically, the test of character is what you do when no one's looking. I don't think Bob Gates can be trusted when no one's looking.”
5. He advocated bombing Nicaragua during the Iran-Contra scandal. In a December 14, 1984 memo to then-CIA director William Casey, Robert Gates advocated military strike on targets in Nicaragua, a country with a democratically elected government whose leftist tendencies were untenable to the conservatives in Washington. The bombing never happened, as Gates’ proposals were too extreme—for an administration that was secretly selling arms to Iran to fund the contra war in Nicaragua. Enough said.
6. Continuity is not what we need. One of the major arguments used by proponents of the Gates pick is the need for continuity, given the precarious situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. I once attended a training on running electoral campaigns that noted that every campaign is either about continuity or change. We know where Obama stood on that issue. We need a clean break from the Bush administration and the foreign policy mindset that got us into the mess we are currently in. Getting rid of Gates doesn’t change the fact that the military command and other key positions will stay the same. Obama will need someone at the top who supports his agenda for change so he can manage a transition not just to a new administration, but to a new security strategy.
Like millions of other people, I personally volunteered and donated to help elect Obama, and I am still excited by his victory. My disagreements with him don’t change the fact that I’m thrilled about the possibilities of a reasonably progressive, intelligent, compassionate president who has offered a drastically different vision for how the US relates with the world. While we need to offer him support to accomplish this ambitious agenda, we also have an obligation to speak out when he’s going in the wrong direction. In fact, that’s what he wants us to do. In his victory speech, Obama said “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.” He is actively courting feedback from the American public on his transition team website. One of the many positive outcomes of Barack Obama’s campaign was a more engaged citizenry, one that should continue to be engaged throughout his administration. This is our opportunity to tell him that we supported his new foreign policy vision, and will continue to support it, but he needs the people at the top who are the right leaders to implement that change.