Watchdog Blog

Saul Friedman: How Gates Almost Missed The End of The Cold War

Posted at 12:24 am, December 4th, 2006
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There is at least one more important matter that reporters with too little memory ought to know about before they cover the hearings for Robert Gates, the nominee for Defense Secretary: He almost cost us the end of the cold war. That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not far wrong. Gates, for years the CIA’s top Soviet analyst and a longtime friend, ally and national security adviser to President George H. W. Bush, was absolutely and almost catastrophically wrong about the strength and the coming collapse of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, he was so wrong in failing to see what any visitor to Moscow might have seen–the decay and weaknesses of the Soviet state–that the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, of New York, half-seriously suggested the abolition of the CIA and its covert operations. Only Jim Mann, in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, has recalled Gates’s role in failing to see the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mann, now a scholar in residence at Johns Hopkins, was a reporter who covered these matters (as I did) at Gates’s confirmation hearings as CIA director in 1991.

More than just failing to see the collapse, Gates used his positions, as assistant to the director of the CIA and later Deputy Director for Intelligence, to manipulate data to his beliefs.

In 1987 Gates failed to win confirmation as CIA director, partly because of his role in the Iran-Contra affair. He had been involved as well in secretly feeding intelligence to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Gates then was close to Vice-president Bush, who was a former CIA director. And the two of them were hard-liners, playing cold war games and consistently overestimating the military and economic strength of the Soviet Union, as Moynihan and subsequent events showed. Incidentally, they were subsequently joined in this by a rising Soviet expert on the National Security Council staff, Condoleeza Rice.

But in Ronald Reagan’s second term, which became devoted to arms reduction, his soul mate, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, told Reagan he could do business with the the up and coming Soviet Leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. I was with Reagan when he went to Moscow in 1988. After several earlier meetings leading up to the Moscow visit, Reagan stood in Red Square and told us that the evil empire era was over. Reagan, in his last year as president, demonstrated his capacity to grow and change his mind. But vacationing back in Kennebunkport, I learned later, the Vice-president, who had been listening to Gates and his old CIA friends, thought Reagan a naive “old fool” who was wrong about Gorbachev and the Soviet threat.

Indeed, the following year, when Bush became president, he called for a lengthy reassessment of policy towards the Soviet Union. And his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, reflecting the president’s views, called Gorbachev a “drugstore cowboy.” Thatcher, who had told Reagan that Gorbachev was an authentic reformer, joined with most of Europe in calling on Bush to match the overtures Gorbachev was making on arms control. Only under this pressure and with nudging by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who became convinced of Gorbachev’s sincerity and the Soviet Union’s internal problems, did Bush agree to reciprocate on arms control.

Gates was confirmed as Bush’s CIA director in 1991, but not before bruising and open confirmation hearings in which former agency analysts testified under oath and in public for the first time, accusing Gates of deliberately skewing intelligence to fit his prejudices, while discouraging dissent. That’s been a familiar pattern lately, and it would be worth asking about.

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