Scowcroft’s virtues “seem to be increasingly quaint” in this town, Gates said, comparing them with the “zero-sum politics and ideological siege warfare [that] are the new order of the day.”
Gates served for more than 30 years in government under eight presidents, Republicans and Democrats. His look at today’s Washington should be read as a reflection of what he has seen and absorbed during that time. We should take his criticisms seriously.
After all, Gates — and the country — have been through a lot since the mid-1960s. He was a young man in the Nixon White House at the time of Watergate and impeachment. In his book he described it as “being a deckhand on the Titanic.” In the Ford period, he worked through the collapse of South Vietnam and the Mayaguez incident, in which the United States seemed powerless abroad.
Iran’s taking of American hostages and the failed attempt to free them dominated the Carter period, while the Reagan years featured Lebanon bombings, “Star Wars,” Iran-contra and negotiations with the Soviet Union.
It was in that latter period, in 1987, that Gates’s career hit a bump. He was nominated to be CIA director after William Casey’s death, but he withdrew his name after two days of confirmation hearings amid Senate criticism of his possible role in the Iran-contra affair.
Gates returned to the White House National Security Council staff in 1989 as Scowcroft’s deputy. The first Bush administration saw the Berlin Wall fall, liberation of Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the turning back of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Gates also finally reached his goal of becoming CIA director in November 1991.
Gates had witnessed good and bad government when he returned in 2006 as President George W. Bush’s defense secretary. How well he did was reflected in President Obama’s 2008 decision to make him the only defense secretary ever to continue in a new administration run by the opposing party.
That’s why we must pay attention when Gates says, as he did last week, that the nation’s problems “go much deeper than individual personalities.”
Like a good analyst, he looked at the election system and at Congress, focusing on what he called “the highly gerrymandered system of drawing congressional districts to create safe seats for incumbents of both parties.” The result, he said, was “elected representatives totally beholden to their party’s ideological base; wave elections that sweep one party into power after another, each seized with ideological zeal and the rightness of their agenda.”