Surprises From Gates's 1996 Memoir

Robert Gates credits Jimmy Carter with toughness on the Soviet Union.
Robert Gates credits Jimmy Carter with toughness on the Soviet Union. (Musadeq Sadeq - AP)

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Of all the presidents he worked for, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is particularly supportive of one -- but it isn't, as might be expected, Ronald Reagan, the first President Bush or even Gerald R. Ford.

Rather, in his memoirs, the new Pentagon chief leaps repeatedly to the defense of Jimmy Carter, the sole Democrat for whom he worked, who was often seen as weak on the Soviet Union and taken by surprise when it invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.

Gates's 1996 book, "From the Shadows," is now being combed for insights into the new defense secretary's thinking, how he might run the Pentagon and what he's had to say about his past bosses.

When it comes to Carter, it isn't that Gates, a career Sovietologist who rose to become CIA director, is a closet dove. Rather, he thinks Carter was far tougher on Moscow than is generally recognized.

"I believe the Soviets saw a very different Jimmy Carter than did most Americans by 1980, different and more hostile and threatening," Gates writes. In both conventional weaponry and in the nuclear arena, he argues, Carter would "provide a strong foundation for Ronald Reagan to build upon." By contrast, Gates describes the first president for whom he worked, Richard Nixon, as "by far the most liberal" of the group. (Gates also shows a bit of dovish ankle, revealing that before leaving the CIA to work in the Nixon White House, he marched in a May 1970 antiwar demonstration.)

Most of all, writes Gates, who was the national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union at the time, Carter's emphasis on human rights cast a spotlight on the Soviets' greatest vulnerability. The rights theme, Gates says, made Carter "the first president during the Cold War to challenge publicly and consistently the legitimacy of Soviet rule at home." In his view, these were "the first steps" toward the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

Gates even defends Carter's handling of Afghanistan, reporting that the president and his advisers reacted far earlier than is generally understood, most notably by authorizing covert aid to Afghan insurgents.

The 604-page book contains a few other hints at how Gates might operate at the Pentagon during the last two years of the Bush administration.

· He might seek to borrow from the proposals and tactics of the administration's opponents. Some of the most effective U.S. officials he has seen, he says, were Henry A. Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and George P. Shultz, whom he describes as "basically hawks who drew extensively on the ideas and initiatives of the doves."

· He appears more inclined than his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, to try to enlist the support of the Pentagon bureaucracy for his policies. Reviewing the record of one CIA director, Adm. Stansfield Turner, he concludes that, "in nearly every case, his failure to build a substantial internal constituency for his changes led to the reversal of his initiatives very quickly after his departure."

· He doesn't make policy disagreements personal. He writes warmly about his former boss Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser under George H.W. Bush (and also under Ford) but has been considered something of a turncoat by the current president for opposing the invasion of Iraq. "I never argued as much with any person," he recalls. "I never got more frustrated at times with any person. But when I became DCI [director of central intelligence] and left the White House, I considered Brent Scowcroft my closest friend in the world."


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