By Melvin A. Goodman
On Jan. 27, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton engaged in efforts to change the tone, and perhaps the substance, of U.S. relations with the Muslim world, including Iran. President Obama, in the first formal interview of his presidency, told the Arab satellite network al-Arabiya that Americans “have not been perfect” in their dealings with the Muslims and signaled a diplomatic handshake to the region.
Secretary Clinton, in her first remarks to reporters since her confirmation, stated that Iran has the “clear opportunity” to engage the international community. On that same day, the president’s special Middle East envoy, former senator George Mitchell, arrived in Egypt to begin an eight-day tour of the Middle East and Europe in order to galvanize an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Meanwhile, there are rumors that veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross will be named to a senior post that will concentrate on improving U.S. relations with Iran.
One member of the Obama administration’s foreign policy team, however, is not on message regarding ties between the United States and Iran. In remarks yesterday to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gratuitously accused Iran of engaging in “subversive activity” in South America and Central America. Interestingly, Gates was responding to a senator’s questions about Russian naval activity in the Caribbean, and offered no specifics regarding Iranian “meddling.” Gates has a history of politicizing intelligence to support his policy preferences and trying to compromise the diplomatic efforts of such secretaries of state as George Shultz and James Baker.
The memoir of former secretary of state Shultz is replete with examples of Shultz’s anger with Gates’ meddling in policy matters and the politicization of intelligence to complicate U.S. policy. In 1986, Shultz charged acting CIA director Gates with “manipulating” the secretary of state and reminded Gates that the CIA was “usually wrong” about Moscow, having dismissed Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies as “just another Soviet attempt to deceive us.” Shultz knew that Gates was politicizing intelligence in order to pander to the ideologues in the Reagan administration and to build support for a more aggressive U.S. foreign policy.
A year earlier, Gates and his National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, Graham Fuller, collaborated in the creation of a special National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that was used to justify the ill-fated deals known as Iran-contra. The Reagan administration wanted to justify selling arms to Iran and use the profits to fund the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.
Gates and Fuller supplied the intelligence backing for this illegal activity with an estimate that argued the Kremlin was optimistic about its prospects for improved relations with Iran. CIA analysts were extremely pessimistic about Soviet-Iranian relations as long as Ayatollah Khomeini was alive, but Gates and Fuller ignored their assessments. Gates’ dissembling to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1987 on his knowledge of Iran-contra ended his chances to become director of CIA in the Reagan administration.
In 1989, then secretary of state Baker was trying to improve relations with the Soviet Union and to ensure the continuation of “glasnost” and “perestroika” in the Kremlin. Baker and his director of the policy planning staff, Dennis Ross, were convinced that Gates was trying to undercut much of what President George H.W. Bush and Baker were saying to the Soviet leadership.
In Baker’s memoir, “The Politics of Diplomacy,” he describes how he had to call Gates’ boss, Brent Scowcroft, to kill the speech that Gates wanted to give and then took the unusual step of telling President Bush what he had done just to make sure that it wouldn’t happen again. Bush agreed with Baker, and confessed “It’s caused some heartburn over here.”
This may seem like ancient history now, but it certainly appears to this observer that Gates has not learned from the mistakes of his past and that, once again, he is driving outside his policy lanes that should be restricted to military policy. Secretary of State Clinton should not permit the secretary of defense to address foreign policy matters at a delicate time for policy toward the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
President Obama should be aware of Gates’ support for such policies that the president wants to reexamine as deployment of a ballistic-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic; the rush to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO; continued spending on a national missile defense; and the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. President Obama needs to establish his own strategic agenda and it already appears that retaining George Bush’s secretary of defense could become a significant roadblock to doing so.
Melvin A. Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, is a former intelligence analyst at the CIA (1966-1990) and the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.
"[DNC Chair Tom Perez] has gotten instructions from Bill Clinton not to let the party go to the Bernie Sanders folks." - Jonathan Allen, co-author of Shattered, revealing new material in the upcoming paperback release pic.twitter.com/dLEnwl7kIc— HootHootBerns 🌹🐦 (@HootHootBerns) May 3, 2018