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A Gates-Style Thaw

Defense Secretary Robert Gates
Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Pool - Getty Images)

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, December 16, 2007

"We are going to do something terrible to you," one Kremlin insider frequently told Americans in the 1980s as the Soviet Union was crumbling before the unbelieving eyes of U.S. intelligence. "We are going to deprive you of an enemy."

He turned out to be more prophetic than he realized. Today -- to my slack-jawed astonishment -- a senior U.S. official is pursuing a similar approach toward a newly hostile Kremlin by making subtle overtures on ballistic missile defense and other contentious security issues and then wooing world opinion.

Big deal. Diplomats get paid to do that, right? But this is the astonishing part. The official is Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The same Robert Gates who under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush helped shape hard-line intelligence judgments -- which he later admitted were behind the curve -- and cultivated an image as a leading CIA hawk in the Washington political aviary.

Under George W. Bush, Gates has emerged as a steady, reasoned voice on policy in an administration struggling to keep its head above water. He has traveled the globe this year to argue that the United States has not become the evil empire and is a trustworthy, caring ally. Making an art of not being Donald Rumsfeld, Gates has deflected angry broadsides from Vladimir Putin and others with unsuspected reserves of irony.

At home, he urges Congress to provide more resources for public diplomacy and the State Department's other traditional activities. On Washington's Embassy Row, he is seen as "the only one left in this administration with credibility," as one impressed diplomat puts it. Gates has, in short, eclipsed in many ways the other PhD in Soviet and Russian studies in Bush's Cabinet, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Gates, however, would have none of this as he spoke by telephone this month from Bahrain, where he had just explained to Gulf Arab defense officials that Washington was not easing its campaign to stop Iran from going nuclear despite all appearances to the contrary. As he had in Munich in February and in Singapore in June at similar conferences, he worked hard at being nonconfrontational and listening respectfully to other speakers.

Attending such gatherings was not his idea or his wont, Gates said. Advisers had persuaded him to show up "to send a signal to our friends and take the opportunity to deliver a message, either in fact or in symbolism," about America's commitment to multilateral cooperation. In Bahrain, he painstakingly explained that the just-released National Intelligence Estimate on Iran had been widely misunderstood by many of those who read it (and, by implication, by some of those who wrote it).

Gates was the key figure in persuading President Bush to release a public version of the NIE to minimize partial leaks and greater controversy about the document, administration officials report. He also emphasized getting facts out to the public quickly in dealing with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal and other controversies.

He has drawn less attention to his creative diplomacy, which included proposing directly to Putin that Russian observers could monitor U.S. missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as suggesting that the activation of those sites could be delayed until Iran passed an established threshold as a military threat. He also succeeded in softening the U.S. approach in dealing with Moscow's complaints about the stationing of conventional forces in Europe.

Unfortunately, Putin has rejected or ignored these overtures. Gates suggested to me that this might change after Russia's presidential election in March but did not offer that as a prediction. His effort to deny the Kremlin (and other foreign critics) an easy enemy stemmed from "two motives," he continued: "We are trying to expand cooperation when we can and to make clear that it is not the U.S.'s fault when we can't."

Foreign officials who have discussed Russia separately with Rice and Gates note that while she refers frequently to "the red lines" that Moscow has to observe to stabilize a difficult relationship, Gates emphasizes that Russia no longer represents a significant threat to U.S. goals or security. He quickly moves on to the problems of Afghanistan or Iraq, where he is well positioned to be sharply critical of allies for falling short on their commitments.

"We are not locked in a global confrontation with Russia," as the United States was with the Soviet Union, Gates responded when I asked whether he or the Russians had changed more since the Cold War. "The world doesn't have blocs anymore. We are in a multipolar world now."

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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