The Wall Street Journal op-ed staff’s decision to publish Robert M. Gates’ article last Friday on how he sizes up the two major presidential candidates’ qualifications for the Oval Office makes sense only by the degraded and often mindless standards of the American political, policy, and media establishments.
Sure, as the tag line ostentatiously noted, “Mr. Gates served eight presidents over 50 years, most recently as secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.” As a result, I’m certainly interested to know his views – and especially that, although Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has a deeply flawed record, Republican Donald Trump is “beyond repair.” You should be, too. But should anyone regard Gates as the last word? I’m not convinced – nor should you be.
For starters, one of the presidents Gates served was Ronald Reagan – as a big player in that administration’s reckless and downright looney scheme (the so-called Iran-Contra affair) to evade Congress’ ban on supplying anti-communist Nicaraguan rebels with profits made secretly by selling arms to Iran’s terrorism-sponsoring, hostage-taking ayatollahs. Gates also seems to regard George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy presidency as standing within the bounds of acceptability. Hello?
At least as unimpressive, though, is Gates’ judgment regarding current foreign policy issues. Here are three examples. First, the former Bush and Obama Secretary of Defense warned that:
“Every aspect of our relationship with China is becoming more challenging. In addition to Chinese cyberspying and theft of intellectual property, many American businesses in China are encountering an increasingly hostile environment. China’s nationalist determination unilaterally to assert sovereignty over disputed waters and islands in the East and South China Seas is steadily increasing the risk of military confrontation.
“Most worrying, given their historic bad blood, escalation of a confrontation between China and Japan could be very dangerous. As a treaty partner of Japan, we would be obligated to help Tokyo. China intends to challenge the U.S. for regional dominance in East Asia over the long term, but the new president could quickly face a Chinese military challenge over disputed islands and freedom of navigation.”
True indeed. But then he upbraids both Trump and Clinton for opposing President Obama’s Pacific rim trade agreement, a position that he argues (despite presenting no evidence) “would hand China an easy political and economic win.” Indeed, Gates dredges up the know-nothing specter of China responding to Trump-ian tariffs with a trade war against America that it could well win because of all the U.S. debt it holds and because it’s “the largest market for many U.S. companies.”
Apparently he’s unaware that China’s debt holdings are a small fraction of the outstanding U.S. total, that the PRC remains much more important to American multinational firms as an offshore production platform than a final customer (which explains why the United States runs a huge trade deficit with Beijing), and that without adequate access to the American market, China’s export-focused economy and political stability would face mortal danger.
Worse, as chief of Mr. Obama’s Pentagon, Gates pioneered a relaxation of American export controls that greatly expanded China’s access to America’s best commercially produced defense-related knowhow. Talk about feeding the beast!
Gates’ critique of the Clinton, and especially Trump, Russia stances should inspire no more confidence. According to this supposed national security guru, “neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Trump has expressed any views on how they would deal with Mr. Putin (although Mr. Trump’s expressions of admiration for the man and his authoritarian regime are naive and irresponsible).”
As Gates notes, under Putin, “Russia [is] now routinely challenging the U.S. and its allies. How to count the ways. There was the armed seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea; Moscow’s military support of the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine; overt and covert intimidation of the Baltic states; the dispatch of fighter and bomber aircraft to avert the defeat of Syria’s Assad; sales of sophisticated weaponry to Iran.
“There is Russia’s luring the U.S. secretary of state into believing that a cease-fire in Syria is just around the corner—if only the U.S. would do more, or less, depending on the issue; the cyberattacks on the U.S., including possible attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election; and covert efforts to aggravate division and weakness with the European Union and inside European countries. And there is the dangerously close buzzing of U.S. Navy ships in the Baltic Sea and close encounters with U.S. military aircraft in international airspace.”
But actually it’s Gates who’s leaving the biggest questions unanswered. Does he now view the targets of Putin’s aggression as vital U.S. interests that merit a defense guarantee that could expose the United States itself to nuclear attack? When exactly did Crimea and Ukraine, which are so close to Russia that they cannot possibly be defended by Western conventional forces, attain this status? Why were American presidents going back to 1945 wrong to take exactly this position (including all of those he served)?
Indeed, what’s changed since Gates himself recognized this reality, and warned former President George W. Bush that the NATO expansion pushed by him and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, would needlessly provoke the kind of Russian push-back now underway? And if Gates hasn’t reversed himself on Russia, why is he so scornful of Trump’s evident interest in cutting a deal with Putin?
Gates is non-partisan, but no better, when it comes to the Middle East. He accuses the two candidates or failing to define “what the broader U.S. strategy should be toward a Middle East in flames….” But his critique of Trump is especially off base. According to Gates, the Republican candidate has “suggested we should walk away from the region and hope for the best. This is a dangerous approach oblivious to the reality that what happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East.”
But he misses the essence of Trump’s position, which is defending America from threats emanating from the region at America’s borders – which are relatively controllable – versus in that terminally dysfunctional, faraway region – which is completely uncontrollable. Gates can legitimately disagree with this approach (which I have repeatedly endorsed), but he can’t legitimately claim that it doesn’t exist.
Gates’ critique extends to several other current flashpoints, but what’s especially revealing to me is how this supposed diplomatic sage completely mis-identifies the biggest foreign policy question facing America’s leaders and the public. It’s not, per his formulation “how [the next president] thinks about the military, the use of military force, the criteria they would apply before sending that force into battle, or broader questions of peace and war.”
As I’ve been writing since the mid-1980s, that kind of thinking puts the cart before the horse. (Here’s a good summary of my first lengthy article on the subject, which unfortunately is not available in full on-line.) America’s main foreign policy challenge is figuring out its principal overseas interests, and basing its decisions on using force on the importance of those goals. Otherwise, debates on going to war and other uses of military power will be conducted in a strategic vacuum – which already too often has been the case.
Given Gates’ wealth of experience, it’s fine for The Wall Street Journal – or any other news organization – to grant him a prominent forum from time to time. How much better it would be, however, for editors and reporters and pundits to ask him, and themselves, if he’s ever displayed any learning curve.