The U.S. Has No Global Strategy

The former defense secretary on U.S. gains forfeited in Iraq, America's rudderless foreign policy and the 'completely unrealistic' Donald Trump.

Jan. 29, 2016 6:02 p.m. ET
New York
Many Americans probably had misgivings when U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, but even the most pessimistic must be surprised at how quickly things went south.
Turn on the TV news: Western Iraq, including the Sunni triangle that the U.S. once worked so hard to pacify, is in the hands of a terrorist group, Islamic State, radiating attacks as far as Paris, Jakarta and San Bernardino, Calif.
The battlefield where the U.S. spent most of its blood has become swept up into the chaos of next-door Syria. Refugees from the region are destabilizing Europe. Proxy forces, shadowy groups and national armies representing half a dozen countries are fighting on the ground and in the air. The world seems one incident away from World War III in the vacuum U.S. troops left behind-as when NATO member Turkey recently shot down a Russian jet.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates occasionally meets veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars in his travels. What their effort bought seldom comes up. "We don't really talk about where we are today," he says. "You have to assume it's very painful for a Marine who lost a buddy in Fallujah to see an outfit like ISIS in charge of Fallujah again. Was the sacrifice worth it?"
Mr. Gates, along with President  George W. Bush and Gen.  David Petraeus, was a prosecutor of the troop surge, a decision unpopular even in the Pentagon to double down on the Iraq war in 2006. His 2014 memoir, "Duty," which a  New York Times reviewer called "one of the best Washington memoirs ever," makes clear that the suffering of U.S. troops weighed more and more heavily on him as he served under President Bush and then re-upped under President Obama.
Today, if the mess in Iraq comes up, he tells those who served there, "You accomplished your mission. It was the Iraqis that squandered our victory."
But Mr. Gates also believes the outcome could have been different if the U.S. had kept troops in place. Islamic State wouldn't have spread its influence across the border from Syria. More important than firepower, he says, was having a four-star representative of the U.S. military present who could "bring Sunni and Kurdish and Shia leaders together, make them talk to each other. When that process disappeared, all the external brakes on Maliki"-Iraq's then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Mr. Gates blames for the unraveling-"disappeared."
In 2008 the Bush administration gritted its teeth and reached a Status of Forces Agreement with Mr. Maliki, keeping U.S. troops in place through 2011. Whether a second agreement was in the cards we may never know. "It was clear from the Bush experience that it was going to take the deep involvement of the president, really working the phones and twisting arms. And my impression is that that didn't happen."
Mr. Gates, 72, is making the rounds on behalf of his new book, "A Passion for Leadership," drawing on his experience reforming large institutions, including the CIA under the first President Bush, the Pentagon and, his favorite job, as president of Texas A&M University from 2002-06.
As we settle at a table at the bar in midtown Manhattan's London hotel, Mr. Gates, the freshly minted author of a management book, appears less than impressed with the greatest management book of all time (by its author's own estimate), "The Art of the Deal."
Donald Trump "brings the same skill set to leadership in the public sector that I would bring to the New York real-estate market," he says. "The skills don't transfer. When he talks about making other countries do things, it's just completely unrealistic."
Mr. Gates says he likes some of this year's candidates, but the ones he likes aren't getting traction. Both parties could learn from Ronald Reagan. "The country was in real trouble in 1980. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. Interest rates were in the high teens. Inflation was in the teens. But Reagan ran on a campaign of optimism-better days are coming."
The Journal's own  reviewer said Mr. Gates's book is one all the candidates should read. Mr. Gates himself says, "People are fed up with their daily encounters with bureaucracies. It's just one hassle after another. The candidate who can say 'we can fix it' would be tapping into another deep vein of frustration."
His book is full of cogent advice and war stories, most testifying to one of life's less-advertised facts: The higher you go, the more power is about persuading, cajoling and stroking "people you don't like." Mr. Gates's minimal high regard for Congress is evident, as it was in his earlier book, which recorded frequent revulsion at Congress's partisan pettiness while American troops were dying in Afghanistan and Iraq.
His own upbringing in 1950s Kansas was "idyllic," he says. His early life revolved around family, church, school and the Boy Scouts of America (an organization, incidentally, he now heads). He eventually became a grad student, specializing in Russian and Soviet history. He aimed to teach but on a lark signed up for a CIA interview. "I was amazed when they offered me a job."
The offer was a chancy one. The agency couldn't dispense draft deferments, but it had an arrangement with the U.S. Air Force: If he survived officer-candidate school and obtained his commission, he would eventually be seconded to the CIA. "If you failed out, you went straight to Vietnam."
Mr. Gates's mandatory Air Force stint took him to the "Palm Beach of missile bases," a Minuteman facility 60 miles from the attractions of Kansas City. Responsibility came quickly, he jokes, because he was the only one who could "pronounce the names of our targets." Later, as a young CIA analyst, he would earn a Ph.D. in his off-hours, a degree that came in handy exactly once in his career. "I think it helped tip the balance" when Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, chose him to work in the White House.
Mr. Gates has served under eight presidents. He was a protégé of both Mr. Brzezinski andBrent Scowcroft. Foreign-policy types would label him a "realist."
He doesn't believe the U.S. can solve the world's problems, but it had better be ready to take the lead in managing them. He laments that, after the first Iraq war in 1991, the Iraqi army didn't use the opportunity to overthrow Saddam: Instead Shiites and Kurds staged a revolt that the U.S. was not going to assist.
In supporting the second Iraq war, he gave a speech saying that if 100,000 U.S. troops were still in place after six months "we've made a disastrous mistake."
Unbidden, he mentions today that, along with the entire Obama national-security team, he opposed the president's insistence that  Hosni Mubarak of Egypt step down. The White House was also unwise, he adds, to publicly insist that Bashar Assad must go after the Syrian uprising. "I don't think presidents should commit to things that they have no idea how to make happen," he says.
"The administration got caught up in the Arab Spring. They misread it pretty badly. There were no institutions to support the kind of reform efforts that the street demonstrators were calling for in the overthrow of these authoritarian governments." Worse, it sent a message to friendly regimes facing potential instability: "If you have demonstrations in your capital, the U.S. will throw you under the bus. So it disconcerted the Saudis and all our Arab allies."
Mr. Gates offers a mixed assessment of the Iran nuclear deal, but his biggest complaint is its missing corollary-the lack of a strong signal that the U.S. remains committed to Iran's geopolitical containment. "We cut deals with the Soviets [on nuclear weapons] but at the same time pursued very aggressive policies" to counter Soviet meddling around the world. "I don't know why we didn't do the same things with Iran." The result, he says, is that allies like the Saudis and Israelis now fear the U.S. is deliberately acquiescing in Iran's emergence as the new hegemon in the region.
Mr. Gates's up-close association with nuclear weapons early in his career, and his long professional association with the intelligence community, have not left him in any doubt about the value of either. The presence of Iran, North Korea and  Vladimir Putin on the world stage shows why nuclear deterrence remains essential to keeping Americans safe.
Covert capability has proved its worth too, he says. American presidents need to understand that the capability must be maintained so the president is not "just throwing the dice" the next time a hostage rescue is called for. As to the controversial eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency, he says with a laugh, "Google and Amazon know a hell of a lot more about you than NSA does,  because they actually care."
Where he faults the intelligence agencies is their record in failing to anticipate events. "The intelligence community is no better at predicting the future than a crystal ball. During the Cold War, human spies played a big, constructive role in getting us information on enemy weapons systems still in development. Where human spies provide very little help, historically, is on what the other fellow's intentions are. Through the whole Cold War, we never had a source inside the Kremlin who could tell us what was going on inside Politburo meetings. I don't think the Soviets had anything comparable on our side."
Nowadays Russian President Putin, himself a former KGB operative, never tires of claiming that the U.S. is the fount of global disorder-as if Saddam's 19-year career of making war on his neighbors and his own people was "stability," as if the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Libya were stimulated by Jen Psaki's State Department press briefings.
Mr. Gates says the real problem with U.S. policy has been the absence of any clear strategy like the one that guided the U.S. in the Cold War. "We all implicitly accepted [George] Kennan's view that if we contained the Soviets long enough, their internal contradictions would finally lead to their collapse, even if nobody had any idea when.
"If you accept the premise that we face a generation-long period of turbulence and violence in the Middle East, the lack of an overarching strategy for how you react to a region in flames is a problem. Are there fires we should just let burn out? Who are our friends? Who should we support?"
The answers might not be the right thing to tell a Marine mourning a buddy lost in Fallujah. But if Mr. Gates's time in the hot seat should have taught us anything, it's that we need better answers to these questions.
Mr. Jenkins writes the Journal's Business World column.

David S. Maxwell
Associate Director
Center for Security Studies &
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Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
Georgetown University
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