Gates on Iran — cause for concern?

Robert Gates speaks to the media in the Oval Office, Nov. 8.  (Paul Morse/White House)

Robert Gates speaks to the media in the Oval Office, Nov. 8.

(Paul Morse/White House)

WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 (JTA) — President Bush’s nomination of Robert Gates as defense secretary has anxious pro-Israel and Israeli leaders looking East, trying to gauge whether Gates’ past conciliatory noises on Iran herald a change in U.S. policy. As a result, Bush administration officials have been gently guiding their gaze back West — to Texas, where Gates, in his current role as president of Texas A&M University, is very much part of an establishment noted more for its loyalty to the Bush family than to any foreign policy outlook. In other words, Gates was selected less for his views and more for his history of willingness to carry out administration policy, however it’s shaped after the Democrats swept Congress and the deeply unpopular Donald Rumsfeld was ousted as defense secretary. “It’s not really where he goes, it’s where the president goes,” Mara Rudman, a Clinton administration member of the National Security Council, said of Gates last week at an Israel Policy Forum function in Washington. Pro-Israel officials were taken aback by the selection, especially because Gates’ only recent public policy statement, in 2004, recommended accommodation of Iran. “The current lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms U.S. interests in a critical region of the world,” Gates said in a 2004 Council on Foreign Relations paper coauthored with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser. “Direct dialogue with Tehran on specific areas of mutual concern should be pursued.” Within a day, the remarks were widely distributed by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank. They set off alarm bells for a pro-Israel community closely watching how Bush deals with domestic pressure to tamp down violence in Iraq after Democrats won both houses of Congress by campaigning against Bush’s handling of the war. A congressionally mandated commission on Iraq co-chaired by James Baker, Bush’s father’s secretary of state, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman, is set to recommend greater engagement with Iran because of its influence with Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. Not only is Gates a member of the commission, his closest professional friendship is with Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush’s national security adviser. Scowcroft and Baker guided that administration’s pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. Gates is firmly in the “realist” community, which has clashed with neoconservatives, said Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. But that’s not why he was hired, Neumann said, adding that Gates was appointed more because he has a record of doing what he’s told. “There’s nothing good or bad about Gates,” Neumann said. “They wanted someone who doesn’t make waves.” That seemed to be Bush’s emphasis last week in announcing the nomination of Gates, who led the Central Intelligence Agency from 1991-93, during Bush’s father’s term. “He knows that the challenge of protecting our country is larger than any political party, and he has a record of working with leaders of both sides of the aisle to strengthen our national security,” Bush said. Gates, 62, was CIA director during the first Persian Gulf War. The first President Bush named the veteran agent to the post after a prior attempt by President Reagan to elevate Gates to the post failed in 1987. Gates withdrew from the 1987 battle because at the time he appeared implicated in the Iran-Contra affair, the secret, illegal dealings in which Reagan administration officials attempted to simultaneously bolster right-wing Central American insurgents and pay Iran in arms to release U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Gates was never charged with any crime in the affair. The elder Bush’s appointment was an example of the famed Bush family loyalty to those who are loyal to the Bushes: Gates had assiduously courted Bush when he was vice president to Reagan. In an echo of current Iraq war controversies, a Congressional Quarterly review of Gates’ CIA career found that in the 1980s, colleagues in the agency accused him of “fixing” intelligence to please his political bosses. One example: He said the Soviets were encouraging the Palestine Liberation Organization to carry out terrorist acts, though there was some intelligence suggesting the opposite. Gates’ most notorious quality is perhaps his micromanagement: According to Texas Monthly magazine, Gates fired five top food managers at Texas A&M and replaced them with staff from Stanford University in California in order to expose A&M’s prickly traditionalists to different cultures. Neumann of JINSA said that however Gates turned out, Rumsfeld — known for his closeness to Israel — would be missed. He cited a recent revelation by Colin Powell that some State Department staff referred to Rumsfeld and his staff as the “JINSA crowd.” “The administration today was stronger on Israel than any administration in my life,” Neumann said.

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