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Gates's just-published memoir has been making waves for its critique of the Obama team's handling of the Afghanistan War and for its potshots at Joe Biden.
But Gates himself has an extremely checkered past, marked by scandal and misjudgment. His formative years in the upper echelons of government were as the deputy CIA chief during the Reagan Administration, when he was intimately involved in the Iran-Contra affair and was busy exaggerating the Soviet threat.
As Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating Iran-Contra and deputy attorney general in the Eisenhower Administration, pointed out in "Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up," Gates was in on the whole Ollie North illegal operation from the start.
"We did not believe Gates," Walsh wrote. "It simply was not credible that the second-highest officer of the CIA would forget a warning of an illegal activity linking President Reagan's two favorite programs. We decided against prosecuting Gates for making a false statement, however, because there had been only one witness to each of the conversations he claimed to have forgotten."
He engaged in many more transgressions. As Professor Juan Cole reveals, Gates and his fellow officials were complicit in the making of Al Qaeda.
"The Afghanistan jihad waged by Gates and others at the CIA involved pressuring Saudi intelligence also to raise funds for it," Cole writes on his Informed Comment blog. "The Saudis asked Osama bin Laden to help as a fundraiser. He went to Peshawar and founded the Office of Services with Abdullah Azzam, and came back to Saudi mosques to fundraise. The Office of Services eventually became Al Qaeda."
Gates has an unwarranted reputation as a wise elder statesmen who has profound insights to offer on national security and foreign policy. But Melvin Goodman of the Center for International Policy, a former CIA analyst who worked with Gates for more than ten years (and eventually testified against him in Congress), says that Gates's major motivation in life has been to please his superiors.
"Gates has been a sycophant in all of his leadership positions," Goodman states in an Institute for Public Accuracy press release. "For the most part, Gates has been a windsock when it came to policy decisions."
The long list of Gates's offenses goes on. Robert Parry, a former reporter for AP and Newsweek who has followed Gates closely for decades, says he was involved in the "October Surprise" plot that had Reagan operatives reaching out to the Iranian government and promising a better deal if it released the U.S. embassy hostages after the 1980 presidential election.
And then we come to the event that has helped redeem Gates's reputation: the Iraq War. (Ironically, Gates was involved in arming Saddam Hussein in the 1980s as part of the Reagan Administration's policy to counter Iran.) Gates benefited from the fact that he had an easy act to follow. His predecessor as Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was so over the top that Gates seemed by comparison a model of composure and deliberativeness. But the central war strategy that Gates helped design -- the surge -- was hardly the success it's been made out to be.
"The surge has been a failure," Congressman Keith Ellison, who visited Iraq during the war, told me in 2008. "The reason we have any kind of reduction or flatlining of violence in Iraq is because our failed policy for many years allowed for Baghdad to be ethnically cleansed. So where you used to have mixed neighborhoods of Shia and Sunni, you don't have that any more because the majority Shia neighbors have kicked the Sunnis out and the majority Shia neighbors have kicked the Sunni out."
Bob Gates is hardly in a position to throw stones at anyone.
Photo: Flickr user Medill DC, creative commons licensed.