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Why Trust Robert Gates on Iraq

By Robert Parry
November 27, 2006

While in charge of the CIA’s analytical division in the mid-1980s, Robert M. Gates made wildly erroneous predictions about the dangers posed by leftist-ruled Nicaragua and espoused policy prescriptions considered too extreme even by the Reagan administration, in one case advocating the U.S. bombing of Nicaragua.

Gates – now President George W. Bush’s nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary – expressed his alarmist views about Nicaragua and the need to bomb the country’s military targets in a secret Dec. 14, 1984, memorandum to then-CIA Director William Casey.

The memo has new relevance today because Gates’s private advice to Casey suggests that Gates was either more of an extremist ideologue than many in Washington believe or he was pandering to Casey’s personal zealotry.

Either possibility raises questions about Gates’s fitness to run the Pentagon at a time when many observers believe it needs strong doses of realism and independence to stand up to both a strong-willed President and influential neoconservative theorists who promoted the invasion of Iraq.

The Iraq War – now exceeding the length of U.S. participation in World War II – has been marked by politicized intelligence, over-reliance on force, fear of challenging the insider tough-guy talk, and lack of respect for international law – all tendencies that Gates has demonstrated in his career.

Cold Warrior

In the 1980s, Gates was a Cold War hardliner prone to exaggerate the Soviet threat, which put him in the good graces of Reagan administration officials. They also rejected the growing evidence of a rapid Soviet decline in order to justify a massive U.S. military build-up and aggressive interventions in Third World conflicts.

Put in charge of the CIA’s analytical division, which supposedly is dedicated to objective analysis, Gates instead pleased his boss Casey by taking an over-the-top view of the danger posed by Nicaragua, an impoverished Third World nation then ruled by leftist Sandinista revolutionaries who had ousted right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

Though Gates opens his December 1984 memo with the declaration that “it is time to talk absolutely straight about Nicaragua,” he then ignores many relevant facts that get in the way of his thesis about the need to launch air strikes against Sandinista military targets and to overthrow the supposedly “Marxist-Leninist” regime.

For instance, Gates makes no mention of the fact that only a month earlier, the Sandinistas had won an election widely praised for its fairness by European and other international observers. But the Reagan administration had pressured pro-U.S. candidate Arturo Cruz into withdrawing when it became clear he would lose – and then denounced the election as a “sham.”

Without assessing whether the Sandinistas had any real commitment to democracy, Gates adopts the Reagan administration’s favored position – that Nicaragua’s elected president Daniel Ortega was, in effect, a Soviet-style dictator.

“The Nicaraguan regime is steadily moving toward consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist government and the establishment of a permanent and well armed ally of the Soviet Union and Cuba on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere,” Gates wrote to Casey.

The Gates assessment, however, turned out to be wrong. Rather than building a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, the Sandinistas competed six years later in a robust presidential election – even allowing the United States to pour in millions of dollars to help elect Washington’s favored candidate, Violeta Chamorro.

The Sandinistas respected the election results, ceding power to Chamorro. The Sandinistas also have competed in subsequent elections with Ortega finally regaining the presidency in the latest election held in November 2006.

Aggressive Intent?

In the 1984 memo, Gates also promotes another right-wing canard of the era – that Nicaragua’s procurement of weapons was proof of its aggressive intentions, not an attempt at national self-defense.

Again, Gates ignores significant facts, including a history starting in 1980 of first the right-wing Argentine junta and then the United States financing and training a brutal counterrevolutionary movement, known as the contras.

By 1984, the contras had earned a reputation for rape, torture, murder and terrorism – as they ravaged towns especially along Nicaragua’s northern border. In 1983-84, the CIA also had used the cover of the contra war to plant mines in Nicaragua’s harbors, an operation later condemned by the World Court.

But Gates offers none of this context in his five-page memo to Casey, a strong advocate of the contra cause. The memo makes no serious analytical attempt to gauge whether Nicaragua – the target of aggression by a nearby superpower, the United States – might have been trying to build up forces to deter more direct U.S. intervention.

Instead, Gates tells his boss what he wants to hear. “The Soviets and Cubans are turning Nicaragua into an armed camp with military forces far beyond its defensive needs and in a position to intimidate and coerce its neighbors,” Gates wrote.

Gate also paints an apocalyptic vision of what might happen if the contras retreated to Honduras. According to Gates, the flight of the contras would touch off a new wave of refugees and destabilize the region.

“These unsettled political and military circumstances in Central America would undoubtedly result in renewed capital flight from Honduras and Guatemala and result in both new hardship and political instability throughout the region,” Gates wrote.

This so-called “feet people” theme was another administration rationale for continuing the contra war against Nicaragua. But the truth was that right-wing “death squads” then operating in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras generated far more of a refugee flow than had followed the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua in 1979.

Bombing Is the Answer

After laying out his premises, Gates moves to his conclusion – that there is no hope the Sandinistas will accept democracy, even if the contras were sustained in the field, and thus there was no choice but to oust the Sandinistas by force. Gates wrote:

“It seems to me that the only way that we can prevent disaster in Central America is to acknowledge openly what some have argued privately: that the existence of a Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua closely allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba is unacceptable to the United States and that the United States will do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out.

“Hopes of causing the regime to reform itself for a more pluralistic government are essentially silly and hopeless. Moreover, few believe that all those weapons and the more to come are only for defense purposes.”

Dressing up his recommendations as hardheaded realism, Gates added:

“Once you accept that ridding the Continent of this regime is important to our national interest and must be our primary objective, the issue then becomes a stark one. You either acknowledge that you are willing to take all necessary measures (short of military invasion) to bring down that regime or you admit that you do not have the will to do anything about the problem and you make the best deal you can.

“Casting aside all fictions, it is the latter course we are on. … Any negotiated agreement simply will offer a cover for the consolidation of the regime and two or three years from now we will be in considerably worse shape than we are now.”

Gates then calls for withdrawing diplomatic recognition of the Nicaraguan government, backing a government-in-exile, imposing an economic embargo on exports and imports “to maximize the economic dislocation of the regime,” and launching “air strikes to destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua’s military buildup (focusing particularly on the tanks and the helicopters).”

In the memo, Gates depicts those who would do less as weaklings and fools, including some administration officials who favored focusing on arranging new covert aid to the contras.

“These are hard measures,” Gates wrote about his recommendations. “They probably are politically unacceptable. But it is time to stop fooling ourselves about what is going to happen in Central America. Putting our heads in the sand will not prevent the events that I outlined at the beginning of this note. …

“The fact is that the Western Hemisphere is the sphere of influence of the United States. If we have decided totally to abandon the Monroe Doctrine, if in the 1980’s taking strong actions to protect our interests despite the hail of criticism is too difficult, then we ought to save political capital in Washington, acknowledge our helplessness and stop wasting everybody’s time.”

More than two decades later, as the Senate rushes to confirm Gates as Rumsfeld’s successor, neither the Republicans nor Democrats are showing much inclination to review Gates’s troubling record. [See, for example, Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret World of Robert Gates.”]

But the Nicaragua-bombing memo alone should give the senators pause. One could readily imagine Gates playing into George W. Bush’s predilections on Iraq by presenting similar dichotomies between doing the wise but “politically unacceptable” thing by escalating the violence or “putting our heads in the sand” to negotiate some cowardly compromise.

What’s less clear is whether Gates actually believed his hard-line rhetoric in 1984 or was just parroting what he thought his boss wanted to hear?

Some longtime Gates watchers at the CIA believe Gates is essentially a “chameleon” who adapts to the colorations of whatever political environment he finds himself in. His mild-mannered style also has led powerful mentors to see what they wish to see in him.

So, is Gates a closet ideologue who shares his real views only with like-minded individuals like Casey or is he a skilled apple-polisher who curries favor with those above him by leaving them little presents like the Nicaragua-bombing memo for Casey?

Getting It All Wrong

Another striking aspect of the Nicaragua memo is that it proves what many Gates critics have alleged over the years – that he tossed aside the principles of objective analysis to position himself as a political/policy advocate.

Gates did that in the 1984 memo even while serving as the official responsible for protecting the integrity of the intelligence product. But Gates not only crossed the red line against entering the world of policy recommendations, he turned out to be wrong in virtually all his dire predictions.

None of his predictions proved true after the Reagan administration rejected Gates’s extreme proposals. The Reagan administration did not create a Nicaraguan government-in-exile. Nor did it bomb Nicaragua’s military targets. Instead, President Reagan ordered his subordinates to continue arranging financial and military support for the contras, an operation led by White House aide Oliver North.

Later, during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Secretary of State James Baker pushed a strategy of negotiations to resolve the bloody violence raging across Central America. Then, in 1990, the Bush I administration spent millions of dollars to support the Nicaraguan presidential candidacy of Violeta Chamorro against Daniel Ortega.

The Sandinistas permitted the elections to go forward despite the continued contra violence and despite the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua’s internal politics. After Chamorro’s victory, the Sandinistas accepted the outcome and went into opposition.

Despite Gates’s apocalyptic vision, Nicaragua never hardened into a “Marxist-Leninist” dictatorship; it never used its military buildup against neighboring states; it turned out that hoping Nicaragua would become a pluralistic democracy wasn’t “silly and hopeless”; Nicaragua even joined in regional peace negotiations that halted the political violence.

As it turned out Gates had favored policies to the right of Ronald Reagan – and was proven wrong in judgment after judgment after judgment.

Yet now two decades later, after a stint as president of Texas A&M, Gates is returning to Washington as a respected Wise Man who will be trusted to guide the United States out of the bloody debacle in Iraq.

Thankful that George W. Bush’s first Defense Secretary is on his way out, the U.S. Senate seems determined to trust in Bush’s wisdom in choosing a replacement. The Senate also appears ready to trust in the judgment of Robert M. Gates to make the right decisions about the Iraq War.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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