Former defense secretary Robert Gates. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Bob Gates has unusual standing in the debate about the Obama administration’s foreign policy: He was defense secretary for both a hawkish President George W. Bush and a wary President Obama. He understood Bush’s desire to project power and Obama’s skepticism.

Gates characteristically finds a middle ground in the argument that has been swirling since Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic magazine article examining Obama’s reluctance to use military force in Syria and the broader Middle East. Borrowing the famous quip about Richard Wagner’s music, Gates said Obama’s foreign policy “is not as bad as it sounds. It’s the way it comes out that diminishes its effectiveness.”

“The way things get done communicates reluctance to assert American power,” Gates explained in an interview Wednesday. “They often end up in the right place, but a day late and a dollar short. The decisions are made seriatim. It presents an image that he’s being dragged kicking and screaming to each new stage, and it dilutes the implementation of what he’s done.”

Gates criticized the current National Security Council’s implementation of policy, arguing that “micromanagement” by a very large NSC staff undercut Obama’s efforts to use power against the Islamic State and contain China in the South China Sea. “It becomes so incremental that the message is lost. It makes them look reluctant,” he said.

Gates’s criticism of the NSC is noteworthy because he served as deputy to national security adviser Brent Scowcroft in President George H.W. Bush’s NSC, which Obama has cited as a model for how policy should be managed. By that standard, Gates implied, the current NSC team, led by Susan Rice, needs to lift its game.

Gates credited Obama for moving toward better-calibrated policies that would send a stronger message, such as greater use of Special Operations forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and more aggressive moves to assert freedom of navigation in the Pacific. “You don’t need major threats or force projection but a clearer desire to show we can act with force” when necessary, he said.

Gates’s comments come as Obama is about to travel to Europe and the Middle East to meet with allies who have become increasingly critical of his policies. His tone was more that of a feisty, frustrated uncle than a bitter foe. Gates said he still talks to Obama occasionally, but he declined to elaborate.

The interview with Gates followed a speech he gave the previous night in which he parsed the long-standing dispute over whether “realism” or “idealism” should govern U.S. foreign policy. A wise strategy has a measure of both, Gates told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It is neither hypocrisy nor cynicism to believe fervently in freedom while adopting different approaches to advancing freedom at different times along the way — including temporarily making common cause with despots to defeat greater or more urgent threats,” he said in his speech.

Gates offered examples of the realpolitik he practiced as a CIA director and NSC official. He said CIA covert action was very useful in the later years of the Cold War — for example, by smuggling into Russia hundreds of thousands of copies of “The Gulag Archipelago” by dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

As the Cold War endgame approached in 1989, Gates recalled, he commissioned a special NSC group to begin contingency planning for the collapse of the Soviet Union. That study convinced policymakers that a strong central government in Moscow would be needed after the fall of communism to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Gates argued that similar strategic clarity is needed now in dealing with the Islamic State. The administration needs to decide its “desired end state” in Iraq and Syria and then drive policy toward that goal: “Are we still proponents of a unitary Iraqi state or something more federal? Do we want an integral state in Syria, or do we send everyone back to their home base? . . . We don’t know what we want.”

As an example of visionary leadership, Gates cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s move in 1944, when World War II was still raging, to begin planning within the U.S. government for the institutions of the postwar world, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations.

Gates offered a last piece of advice: Because of perceptions that Obama has been reluctant to use power, “some new president could come in without a deft touch and overreact, to reduce this impression. . . . My worry is that the next president will overcorrect.”

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