Gates on Bush — Who knew?

January 27

Former defense secretary Robert Gates challenges some myths and provides new information about the George W. Bush White House, but you wouldn’t know it based on the early reporting and reviews of his book “Duty.”

Gates devotes nearly half of the 594-page book to his two years (actually, 25 months) at the Pentagon during the Bush administration. What he doesn’t do in that section, however, is employ any embarrassing anecdotes or acidic comments as in some of his writing on the Obama years.

Gates is critical of the Bush White House, too, but tends toward generalities.

At one point he describes the Bush administration as “a toxic mix of flawed assumptions about the [Iraq and Afghanistan] wars themselves; a risk-averse bureaucracy; budgetary decisions made in isolation from the battlefield; Army, Navy and Air Force focus in Washington on the routine budget process and protecting dollars for future programs; a White House unaware of the needs of the troops and disinclined to pay much attention to the handful of members of Congress who pointed to those needs; and a Congress by and large so focused on the politics of the war in Iraq that it was asleep at the switch or simply too pusillanimous when it came to the needs of the troops.”

Remember Republican criticism of President Obama for announcing in December 2009 a surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the same time he set a date to begin their withdrawal? According to Gates, Bush did the same thing during the 2007 surge in Iraq, just not so publicly.

In developing the strategy for introducing Bush’s Jan. 10, 2007, surge of about 30,000 troops, Gates writes, “I believed the only way to buy time for the surge, ironically was to hold out hope at the beginning to end it.”

Bush pushed for the surge against the advice of most of the military and with some congressional Republicans and Democrats voicing opposition.

At a Senate Armed Services hearing on the surge, two days after Bush announced it, Gates said he caught lawmakers and the White House “off guard when I indicated that I hoped we could begin drawing down troop levels by year’s end.”

While the Bush White House defeated congressional efforts to legislate a date to start withdrawals, by March 2007, Gates writes, he told the president “we probably could begin a drawdown of troops in October [2007] but pace it so [then-Iraq Commander Gen. David] Petraeus could keep most of the surge through the spring of 2008.”

Gates emphasizes that Bush was determined to “win” in Iraq, while military leaders knew things would end with something much less. In the summer of 2007, during the surge — with agreement that the drawdown to pre-surge levels would come in the summer of 2008 — Gates writes, “The president would continue to speak of ‘winning.’ I was satisfied that our chances of failure and humiliating retreat had been vastly reduced. After all the earlier mistakes and miscalculations, maybe we would get the endgame right after all.”

It is still unclear what was won in Iraq.

Another Gates disclosure provides another lesson: information about Syria building in 2005 what turned out to be a North Korean-designed nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium during the Bush administration.

Though the United States considered Syria a high-priority intelligence target, it was Israel that supplied the compelling evidence in spring 2007 about its nuclear activities. Gates, a former CIA director, said this represented “a significant failure on the part of the U.S. intelligence agencies” but “surprisingly, neither the president nor Congress made much of it. Given the stakes, they should have.”

Questions then arose about diplomatic options or whether to launch a surprise military action against Syria — conducted either by the United Statesor by Israel. At a June 17, 2007, meeting with Bush, Gates described his “preferred approach was to begin with diplomacy and reserve a military strike as a last resort.”

He proposed exposing what North Korea and Syria were doing in violation of the nonproliferation treaty, call for a freeze and international inspection but “not allow the reactor to become operational.”

Gates reported Bush was not going to do a surprise attack but he worried the president, who was “very pro-Israel . . . might just decide to let the Israelis take care of the reactor.”

Three days later, Gates urged Bush to tell Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, “if Israel went forward on its own militarily, he would be putting Israel’s entire relationship with the United States at risk.” Bush talked to Olmert on July 13, who said the reactor “represented an existential threat to Israel [and] that it could not trust diplomacy to fix,” Gates said.

The next day, Bush said he was impressed with Olmert’s “steadfastness” and, according to Gates, was “unwilling to preempt the prime minister through a diplomatic initiative or even to put much pressure on him.” He also noted there were others, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who supported Israel doing whatever it wanted.

Writes Gates, “By not confronting Olmert, Bush effectively came down on Cheney’s side. By not giving the Israelis a red light, he gave them a green one” and on Sept. 6, 2007, the Israelis destroyed the reactor.

In his memoir, “Decision Points,” Bush wrote, “Prime Minister Olmert hadn’t asked for a green light, and I hadn’t given one. He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel.”

For Gates, however, though the Syrians did not react militarily to Israel’s attack, “we had condoned reaching for a gun before diplomacy could be brought to bear . . . This made me all the more nervous about an even bigger looking national security problem.” He meant Iran and its nuclear program.

But Iran was different.In May 2007, Israel made a military arms request “that if satisfied would greatly enhance their ability to strike Iranian nuclear sites.”

At a meeting two days later, Gates said he recommended “saying no to all the Israelis’ requests.” Bush “deflected the Israeli requests” but increased bilateral intelligence sharing.

Gates writes that his most effective argument was that an Israeli attack on Iran that overflew Iraq would endanger what the surge had achieved with Baghdad. Bush then “emphatically said he would not put our gains in Iraq at risk,” according to Gates.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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