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Worse Than Slanting Estimates, Gates Was Wrong

By Steven KullSteven Kull is author of the forthcoming book, "Burying Lenin: The Revolution in Soviet Ideology and Foreign Policy." / October 17, 1991



THE Senate committee considering the confirmation of Robert Gates is now focusing on whether he slanted intelligence reports. While some slanting is inevitable, it does appear that Mr. Gates was heavy-handed and politically motivated. But more important, his slant was wrong.Cast in a cold-warrior mindset, Gates consistently failed to see the changes that were brewing in the Soviet Union. During the early-to-mid 1980s, as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, he was one of the most ardent proponents of the image of the Soviet Union as actively expansionistic. But during this period the Soviets made no new expansionistic initiatives and were beginning to seriously question their activism in the world. In the later 1980s, as Gorbachev extended a conciliatory hand to the West, Gates, then at the National Security Council, was the loudest administration spokesman downplaying the significance of this apparent change and stressing that the mortal conflict with the Soviet Union was "eternal." Is this the kind of track record that calls for Gates's elevation to the head of the preeminent United States intelligence agency, and of the intelligence community as a whole? If this track record does not suggest some limitations in judgment, what would? Imagine that a vice president of a large brokerage house were to advise clients to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars into the stock market. If the market were then to crash, would this deputy be promoted to president? This analogy is very apt. The kind of analysis promoted by Robert Gates led the US to invest hundreds of billions of dollars, over and above the existing spending levels, to augment the American defense against a perceived increase in the potential for Soviet aggression. We now know that this entire effort was pointless; the Soviets never seriously considered the ambitious options, such as invading Europe or launching a massive counterforce strike, against which these defense expenditures were aimed. There is little reason to believe that our spending had a significant impact on their thinking. When the Soviets began to pull back from an ambitious foreign policy in the late 1980s, it was because they saw that such efforts benefited them little and were unsustainable by their sputtering economy. Of course Robert Gates is not personally responsible for this massive misdirection of public funds and the trillion-dollar debt legacy it has left. Others concurred in his grim analysis and ultimately somebody had to sign the checks. Which brings us to the question of why the Senate is so loath to deny confirmation when it has such an abundance of reasons for doing so (Gates's misjudgment of the Soviet Union being only one). Ultimately it was Congress that bought all this bad analysis and wrote the big checks for this unnecessary effort. The Senate cannot reject Gates for his incompetence without also implicating itself. It may seem harsh to expect members of the policymaking community to do something other than mutually let each other off the hook. After all, they were well-meaning guys who did their best, with the limited information at their disposal, etc., etc. THE problem is that even now Congress continues to act as if Gates's old analyses are largely right. Defense spending (in constant dollars) is still far above what it was before the frenzied buildup of the early 1980s. And though defense spending shot up very rapidly at that time, there is a consensus that it will require another five years to get spending back down to the level it was in 1980. Obviously it is politically costly to make such cuts. Constituencies form around the assumption of continued spending. Congress has never been good at just saying no. But perhaps equally fundamental is the fact that such cuts would push up against a comfortable feeling of legitimacy. The level of defense spending to which Congress has become accustomed has taken on the air of business-as-usual, as an appropriate and measured response to threats to American security interests. To make serious cuts, Congress would have to agree that American defense spending is still stuck in an inertia of repetition originally spawned by a period of hysteria. This is not the time for the Senate to gloat over Gates's errors in judgment. He gained high positions in government because he reflected the moods of the time, moods to which Congress was a full party. But for the country to move beyond the erroneous thinking and spending patterns of the 1980s, it is time for the Senate implicitly to recognize that it too made mistakes and to look for a director of central intelligence who reflects a new and fresh view of the world.

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