Sunday, June 24, 2007

Gates and the Cold War, Part II

An excerpt from the next installment of Roger Morris' lengthy series on Robert Gates and the Cold War.

The continuing priority given to analysts of the USSR proved no advantage when it came to intelligence. By the late 1960s, the Agency was already alternately missing or overestimating a genuine Soviet build-up of its missile forces, a step taken by the Russian leadership to redress the massive strategic imbalance (and humiliation) that had culminated in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. ("We will honor this agreement," a Russian envoy told his American counterpart in 1962. He was speaking of the deal President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had forged, as Moscow backed down on placing its missiles in Cuba to match U.S. bombers and warheads poised along the borders of the USSR, 30 minutes from Soviet cities and command centers. "But I want to tell you something. You'll never do this to us again.") Far worse, CIA analysts regularly underestimated by as much as half the mortal burden such staggering military spending placed on a corrupt, sclerotic Soviet economy.

Given the millions of dollars pouring into intelligence, some of the gaps were chilling. As the new, young analyst from Wichita reported to Washington in that leaden summer of 1968, NSC staff officers watched in dismay while the Agency simply "lost" whole Soviet tank divisions and other forces for several crucial days. These were finally located in Prague only as the Soviet ambassador was helpfully informing President Lyndon Johnson of the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The CIA Bob Gates joined was still largely what it had been over its first two decades -- a blunt instrument of covert intervention, now mostly in non-European politics -- and a stagnant fund of intelligence. The Baltic Syndrome had morphed into a global variation of the same half-blind and bigoted perspective. The Agency was trapped in the remarkably narrow confines that defined imperial, yet intellectually provincial, Washington. During Gates' opportunistic rise and sway over the next quarter century, it would remain, at horrendous cost, much the same.

From 1968 to 1974, Gates rose steadily through the ranks of Langley clerkdom, serving on the CIA support group for the Strategic Arms Limitation negotiations in Vienna, and eventually as an assistant national intelligence officer for the USSR. He helped to craft the periodic National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for the Soviet Union, a report that was, and remains, an Agency hallmark for any given area or issue.

His work in these years also focused to some extent on Moscow's policy in the Middle East. He had no training or experience in the region itself, but given the Agency's relatively sparse expertise in the Arab world, he soon professed specialization and authority in that as well. "Gates prided himself in being a top Middle East expert within CIA," according to a former boss, Ray McGovern -- though it was not a claim any of his colleagues in either Soviet or Middle Eastern affairs seem to have taken seriously at the time. ...

Looking back on this crucial take-off moment in Gates' career, media pundits vacantly ascribed it to merit. "The brightest Soviet analyst in the shop," Washington Post columnist David Ignatius typically wrote. Insiders knew better. "He wasn't." That was what his CIA superior Ray McGovern said gently, echoing the feelings of his colleagues that "something other than expertise" made for Gates' "meteoric" climb.

It was, in fact, a triumph of office politics, not substance. "Gates' rise did not come from knowing more about the Soviets.... than anyone else," CIA chronicler Thomas Powers concluded. "He was young, well scrubbed, well spoken, bright, hard-working, reliable, loyal, discreet, and a bit of a hard-ass when it came to the Russians." But his limits, too, were evident. Wrote British historian Fred Halliday: "He would not have been out of place as a small town bank manager: unfazed by questions, reticent in judgment, sure of his ground, but without either incisiveness or (it seemed) the awareness that international experience brings." He had, Halliday concluded, "no trace [of]…. any first-hand experience of foreign cultures or countries." He was "a man of the office, the organization." It was the candid portrait of a consummate insider as insular as the policy and politics he served.

Gates, the Soviet "specialist" and, in many ways, penultimate Cold Warrior, would not even see Moscow until May 1989, more than two decades after entering the CIA as an expert on the USSR and after 15 years in which, to one degree or another, he joined in nearly all Washington's most consequential judgments about Russia. Nor, despite his asserted expertise in the Middle East, would Gates have personal experience with nations he dealt with fatefully from 1974 to 1993 -- most notably Afghanistan and Iraq. He would not tour either until 2006-7, and then only for a few, heavily guarded days and in the most limited of ways. ...

By the early 1970s ... Nixon and Kissinger were confronted with anything but ordinary, venal resistance within the bureaucracy. To their unprecedented policy of détente (and its implicit, if unconscious, challenge to the Baltic Syndrome mentality), there arose an unprecedented opposition not only in the Pentagon but also in the CIA, where some felt Cold War orthodoxy and all it denoted were being threatened as never before.

As Kissinger recounted the experience, he could hardly testify before (Senator Henry) Jackson's Senate Armed Services Committee or other panels without facing conveniently leaked CIA or Pentagon documents that, in one way or another, armed the opponents of détente. These were often highly classified, still closely-held papers Kissinger himself had only just received -- or had not yet seen at all. As Nixon sank into the Watergate miasma, leaks (and opposition) only multiplied -- much of it using materials Bob Gates had ready access to, or had even helped produce, as assistant national intelligence officer. ...

As usual, given Washington's ceaseless traffic in leaks, there is no hard evidence about whether Gates actually leaked into this furor, though his animus in regards to Nixon's Soviet policy was unmistakable and the provenance of many of the leaked documents is damning. Clearly, however, in his first year on the NSC staff he waged a careful rear-guard action against what was to become known as the Helsinki Accords. Kissinger's diplomacy nonetheless brought the Accords to fruition in July 1975. They offered official recognition of post-World War II Soviet Bloc boundaries in Europe, but within a new international context of respect for, and unprecedented monitoring of, human rights and political dissidence in the USSR and its satellites. It would be the last hurrah of détente. While Reagan and the Right attacked the "surrender" of Eastern Europe, the Accords actually opened the way for the rise of internal opposition movements like Poland's Solidarity, leading ultimately to the decay and fall of the USSR.

Gates typically opposed Helsinki as something Moscow sought (which made it anathema automatically). As would be even more true a decade later with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he and others frozen in the Baltic Syndrome (as always, most of Washington) were oblivious to the brittleness of communist rule, cynically dismissing the Accords as "window dressing" the Kremlin and its satellites could and would ignore.


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