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Did Gates Blow the Call on the Soviets?: A Dissent

As I argue in my recent print story on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the prevailing view in Washington foreign policy circles is that Gates, as an anti-Soviet hardliner at the CIA in the late 1980s, misread the import of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and failed to see the USSR's collapse coming. But here's a dissenting view, via email, from Andrew Hamilton, a former national security council staffer, among other government posts, as well as a longtime writer on foreign policy issues (who now writes editorials for the Chaleston, S.C., Post and Courier):

Michael Crowley’s engaging portrayal of Robert Gates needs correcting at the margin. As one who participated in the U.S. government’s effort to understand the significance of the words and actions of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, I believe I have the background to give a different view of Gates’s role in that debate.

Crowley cites several sources for his assertion that, "As the cold war wound down in the late 1980s, Gates was also strikingly slow to appreciate the import of Mikhail Gorbachev and his campaign of perestroika." According to Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbot, "He radiated a[n intense] skepticism about Gorbachev." According to another critic cited in the article, George Washington University professor James Goldgeier, Gates “was very skeptical that Gorbachev could actually change the Soviet Union." "So strong was Gates’s skepticism of Soviet liberalization” writes Crowley, that in October 1988 he pronounced it “doubtful that Gorbachev can in the end rejuvenate the [Soviet] system."

In my experience, skepticism of Gorbachev’s motives and capabilities was the norm in national security assessments during the rapidly changing events of 1988 and early 1989. But the government dramatically changed its approach to the Soviet Union and Gorbachev in the spring of 1989. Far from being “strikingly slow to appreciate the import” of the changes in the Soviet Union, Robert Gates, as deputy national security advisor, played a central role in bringing about what President George H.W. Bush called a “move beyond containment” that sought “the integration of the Soviet Union into the community of nations” based on specific, concrete steps toward cooperation.

The George H.W. Bush administration was the first to face a Congressional requirement that a newly-elected president must complete and report on a thorough review of national security policy and strategy in his first 150 days in office. At the time I was a senior fellow at the Strategic Concepts Development Center at National Defense University at Washington D.C.’s Fort Leslie J. McNair. We heard from a contact at the National Security Council staff that the bureaucracy was not coming up with any new ideas despite indications of change in the Soviet Union. Our informal contact was Robert Gates.

We were not directly engaged in the presidential policy review. But I had been asked in December 1988 by N.D.U. President Lt. Gen. Bradley C. Hosmer, USAF, to read Gorbachev’s recent speeches looking for openings. My first effort, which I briefed to NDU fellows, took a decidedly skeptical approach that was justified by a long history of tactical thaws and freezes in Moscow’s approach to the world. But I took to heart a comment made at one of my briefings that it would be a pity to miss a possible opportunity for a major change in relations.

That remark led, after reflection, to an unpublished paper called “Beyond Containment, A Strategy of Inclusion.” I proposed the paper and its title, but the bulk of the work was done by my colleagues, who proposed ways that the Soviet Union could help settle a number of regional conflicts to give concrete evidence of a new desire to cooperate in ending the Cold War.

Through our informal contact we gave Robert Gates a copy of the paper toward the end of February 1989. I have no knowledge of how it was handled thereafter. But I could not miss the parallels between the new national security strategy rolled out in May 1989 and our brief paper. (I had occasion during a chance June 1989 encounter to ask Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, USAF Ret., then the National Security Adviser, if he remembered our paper, and he said, “You don’t mind if we crib, do you?”)

To summarize, in early 1989 Gates (together with Scowcroft and the president) was looking for new ideas about how to respond to Gorbachev, and quickly saw the merits of our suggestions. I think his role in helping bring about a major change in U.S.-Soviet relations refutes any notion that he was an unthinking hard-line ideologue or too slow on the uptake. As for his 1988 view that Gorbachev would be unable to rejuvenate the Soviet Union, that proved to be correct, did it not?

I thank Hamilton for his letter. I don't think Gates was ever as ideological as, say, many senior national security officials in the second Bush administration. But there's plenty of evidence to show that he was among the toughest Cold Warriors of his time, and that he was at a minimum slow--slower than others, although he had plenty of company--in forseeing the Soviet downfall. Regardless, there's not much debate that Gates has emerged as one of the most pragmatic and non-ideological government leaders of our day.