Defense Secretary Robert Gates may be confronting the career decision of a lifetime: Should the former CIA director lash himself to the mast with George W. Bush and risk going down with the foundering Iraq War ship or should he look to a post-Bush period and position himself as a Washington wise man?

Now that President Bush has invited comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, a parallel could be drawn between Gates and Clark Clifford, the Defense Secretary who took over the job in March 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War and persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to start down the road toward a negotiated settlement.

Like Gates, Clifford replaced a Defense Secretary (Robert McNamara) who was tied to an increasingly unpopular war. McNamara was considered as much an architect of the Vietnam War as Gates’s predecessor (Donald Rumsfeld) was of the Iraq War.

In another parallel, it was learned later that McNamara harbored grave doubts about the prospects for victory in Vietnam and that Rumsfeld privately urged Bush to consider a de-escalation in Iraq before stepping down last November.

But a key difference in the cases of Clifford and Gates is that Clifford initiated the excruciating process of withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, while Gates so far has simply overseen an escalation of U.S. troops into Iraq, the “surge.” Instead of convincing Bush to look for a route out of Iraq, Gates helped send more troops in.

The question now confronting Gates is whether he will continue to be Bush’s loyal front man on the war or chart a course closer to the views of the Pentagon’s top brass who favor a sharp reduction in U.S. troop levels in Iraq next year.

On Aug. 24, the Los Angeles Times reported that Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was expected to advise Bush to cut U.S. forces in Iraq by almost half in 2008, reflecting concerns that continued high troop levels in Iraq would damage American readiness elsewhere.

The Times wrote that the Joint Chiefs favored reducing U.S. force levels in Iraq to below 100,000 soldiers, down from the current 162,000. White House officials and Bush’s hand-picked commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, favor maintaining higher numbers, about 134,000 troops through 2008.

Pace’s position – favoring nearly halving the Iraq troop levels – is privately shared by Gates, the Times reported.

“According to administration and military officials, the Joint Chiefs believe it is of crucial strategic importance to reduce the size of the U.S. force in Iraq in order to bolster the military's ability to respond to other threats, a view that is shared by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates,” the Times wrote.

Pentagon Shakeup

Knowing Pace’s skepticism about the surge, Bush refused to appoint Pace to a second term as JCS chairman. Instead, Bush tapped Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen to succeed Pace, although Mullen is said to share Pace’s concerns about the stress that the Iraq War is putting on the U.S. force structure.

The case for an Iraq War drawdown also got a boost on Aug. 23 when Sen. John Warner of Virginia, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged Bush to start bringing at least some U.S. troops – possibly 5,000 – home by Christmas.

“We simply cannot as a nation stand and continue to put our troops at continuous risk of loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action,'' Warner said after returning from an inspection tour of Iraq.

But one of Bush’s new Iraq field commander, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, promptly slapped down Warner’s idea. In a video news conference on Aug. 24, Lynch vowed to keep U.S. troops at high levels until the Iraqi army is ready to do the job.

“Only when the Iraqi security forces come forward and say ‘OK, here I am, I’m trained and equipped, I’m ready, I’m the Iraqi Army or I’m the Iraqi police,’ can I turn those sanctuaries over, and that’s not going to happen between now and Christmas,” said Lynch, who oversees areas south and east of Baghdad.

The looming confrontation between the Joint Chiefs and congressional war critics on one side and the White House and Bush’s new field generals on the other could test Gates’s famed skills for political maneuvering.

In his meteoric rise at the CIA in the early 1980s, Gates tied his fortunes to the star of Ronald Reagan’s hard-line CIA Director William Casey. That worked well for Gates who  was named chief of the CIA’s analytical division and then CIA deputy director.

However, Gates’s career path took a detour when the Iran-Contra scandal broke and congressional Democrats suspected that Gates had misled them. Those doubts wrecked Gates’s plan to succeed Casey, who died in May 1987.

Gates’s career was salvaged by George H.W. Bush when he became President in 1989 and named Gates to be a deputy national security adviser. When the Iran-Contra scandal quieted down in 1991, Bush elevated Gates to CIA director.

After Bush’s 1992 defeat, Gates was forced out of government and ended up as president of Texas A&M. He was lured back to the power circles of Washington when President George W. Bush named him to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in 2006 and then sought him out to replace Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld’s Doubts

It now appears Rumsfeld fell out of Bush’s favor in fall 2006 because he began pushing the agenda of the Pentagon’s top brass who favored de-escalating the Iraq War. Bush was still looking for ways to achieve victory.

In a secret memo sent to Bush on Nov. 6, Rumsfeld called for a “major adjustment” in Iraq War policy. “Clearly what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough,” Rumsfeld wrote, seeking consideration of “an accelerated drawdown of U.S. bases” from 55 to 10 to 15 by April 2007 and to five by July 2007.

Rumsfeld also suggested that U.S. generals “withdraw U.S. forces from vulnerable positions – cities, patrolling, etc. – and move U.S. forces to a Quick Reaction Force status, operating from within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security forces need assistance.”

And in an implicit criticism of Bush’s lofty rhetoric about transforming Iraq and the Middle East, Rumsfeld said the administration should “recast the U.S. military mission and the U.S. goals (how we talk about them) – go minimalist.” [NYT, Dec. 3, 2006]

Rumsfeld submitted his resignation letter the same day as his memo, though both documents were kept hidden until later leaked to the news media. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Rumsfeld’s Mysterious Resignation.”]

When Rumsfeld’s departure and Gates’s appointment were announced on Nov. 8 – the day after the Democratic congressional election victory – the moves were interpretted as a signal that Bush was ready to start compromising with the new Democratic majority and winding down the Iraq War.

That conventional wisdom turned out to be dead wrong. In reality, the abrasive Rumsfeld had embraced a troop reduction and the mild-mannered Gates had stepped in as the pleasant front man for Bush’s escalation in defiance of the Democrats, the Pentagon brass and Iraq's field commanders, Generals John Abizaid and George Casey.

Bush soon replaced Abizaid and Casey with Petraeus and other field generals who were on board for the surge; the Joint Chiefs grudgingly fell into line; and Gates offered a less-confrontational style in selling Bush’s new strategy.

As the months wore on, Gates continued to draw favorable reactions from both the Democrats and the Washington press corps. He was portrayed as a sensitive man who was troubled by the burdens of war and who choked up when talking about dead soldiers.

But now Gates finds himself on the hot seat. He must decide whether he will stay with President Bush, Gen. Petraeus and other “continue-the-surge” advocates – or side with the Joint Chiefs, congressional war critics and the broader American public in demanding that the troops start to come home.

The Defense Secretary’s decision could have a major impact on the course of the war and go a long way to determining how history will judge Robert Gates. [For more on Gates’s record, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Trust Robert Gates on Iraq?”]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.

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