Robert M. Gates: another realist joins Obama’s team

The NY Times is reporting that Barack Obama will ask Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to stay on. Who is Robert M. Gates, and how does he fit with Obama’s other advisors, particularly in respect to relations with Israel?

Robert Gates visits Bahrain, Dec. 2007

Robert Gates visits Bahrain, Dec. 2007

Gates is 65, a career CIA man who joined the agency in 1966 and served as its director from 1991 through 1993. In 1979 he was Special Assistant to the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in the Carter administration. In 2004 he co-chaired — with Zbigniew Brzezinski — a Council on Foreign Relations task force which issued a report called “Iran: Time for a New Approach“. Much of the material in the report is informed and unexceptionable. But where Israel is concerned there are some jarring moments.


Gates and Brzezinski are quite clear about what Hezbollah is and Iran’s relationship to it:

Among the most troublesome practices of the Islamic Republic is its sustained and prolonged support for militant anti-Israeli groups and terrorists. Among these, Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah remains the most significant. Iranian officials founded the group and continue to provide training, intelligence, arms, and financing twenty years later…

Hezbollah’s track record as one of the world’s foremost terrorist organizations is indisputable: until 9/11, its 1983 attack on barracks housing U.S. Marines held the record for causing the largest loss of U.S. lives as a result of a terrorist attack. As a consequence of this attack and several other suicide bombings carried out by Hezbollah operatives during that period, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage characterized the U.S. stance toward Hezbollah in late 2002 as a “blood debt.” In the 1980s, Hezbollah was responsible for aircraft hijackings as well as kidnappings of U.S. citizens and other Westerners who were then held as hostages. In addition, Hezbollah operatives, along with four Iranian officials, have been indicted by Argentina in connection with the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center that killed eighty-five people…

[Iranian] President Khatami has met with [Hezbollah’s] secretary general, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, several times in Lebanon and in Tehran, commenting recently that the group has a “a natural right, even a sacred national duty” to defend Palestinians against Israel. [pp. 33-4]

But they continue,

…it is highly improbable that Iran can be persuaded or compelled to completely renounce its proxy. Still, some measure of Iranian flexibility may be possible even with respect to Hezbollah. Since 9/11, Iranian leaders have repeatedly advocated that Hezbollah exhibit restraint in its armed struggle against Israel, and have also hinted that a resolution to the Shebaa Farms territorial dispute could set the stage for Hezbollah to abandon its paramilitary activities. [p. 34]

If Iranian leaders have wanted restraint, they certainly haven’t demonstrated it by arming Hezbollah with the thousands of missiles used in the 2006 war, by training its armed forces, and by building it a state-of-the-art command and control system which Israel reportedly was unable to penetrate. Since 2006, Iranian efforts on Hezbollah’s behalf have redoubled.

The Shebaa Farms issue is simply a pretext for Hezbollah’s aggression against Israel. The area is tiny, totaling about 8 square miles, and has practically no strategic importance. Israel’s position is that it was part of Syria before 1967, and is now part of the occupied Golan Heights. Hezbollah claims that it was Lebanon’s and that therefore Israel is still occupying Lebanon; this then justifies its ‘resistance’.  When Israel left southern Lebanon in 2000, it requested that the UN delineate the border just to forestall this sort of pretext; unfortunately, the status of the Shebaa Farms remained unsettled.

Gates and Brzezinski should know this. Suggesting that handing Hezbollah yet another victory, this one over 8 square miles, would impel it to give up its ‘paramilitary activities’ — in fact a massive war-making machine with (today) more than 40,000 missiles, miles of fortifications, etc. — was beyond absurd, even in 2004.

The linkage theory and the Palestinians

Gates, along with Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, advocates the ‘linkage theory’:

The United States should resume an active involvement in the Middle East [Israeli-Arab] peace process and press leading Arab states to commit themselves to providing genuine, substantive support for both the process and any ultimate agreements. Iranian incitement of virulent anti-Israeli sentiment and activities thrives when there is no progress toward peace. Efforts to curtail the lows of assistance to terrorist groups must be coupled with steps to offer a meaningful alternative to the continuing cycle of violence. A serious effort on the part of Washington aimed at achieving Arab-Israeli peace is central to eventually stemming the tide of extremism in the region. [p.7, my italics]

Imposing a ‘peace’ deal that is strategically disadvantageous to Israel and which does not eliminate the rejectionism that is the root of the hostility of the Palestinians — as well as the Arab nations and Iran — would bring the opposite of peace. Gates and Brzezinski have it backwards: the italicized sentence above should read “There can be no progress toward peace while Iranian (and other) incitement of virulent anti-Israeli sentiment and support of terrorism against Israel continues.”

Gates and Brzezinski also seem to think that Palestinian terrorism is caused by the 1967 occupation and would stop if there were progress toward ending it:

Although it is substantial, Iranian assistance does not constitute the primary factor in the existence or operations of Palestinian terrorism, however. Absent a return to discernible progress toward  peace settlement between Palestinians and Israelis and/or a meaningful commitment by the Palestinians to abandon violence against civilians as their primary means of confronting Israeli occupation, these groups and their abhorrent activities are likely to persist. [p. 36, my italics]

But since it should be obvious that Palestinian ‘resistance’ is aimed at the ‘occupation’ which began in 1947, and not 1967 — terrorist groups like Hamas have been quite up-front about this — ‘progress toward a peace agreement’ does not tend to quiet them. Indeed, these groups violently oppose agreements like the Oslo accords because they oppose any solution which leaves Israel standing within any borders.

Iranian nukes

Gates served on the Iraq Study group, which recommended trading Israeli concessions to Syria for calm in Iraq and ‘engagement’ with Iran. He’s been in the forefront of those urging that the US should not take military action nor permit Israel to do so in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Nevertheless he recently said that

I have not by any means given up on the possibility that the Iranians can be pressured into arrangements that salve their national pride but provide a verifiable way of demonstrating that they don’t have a nuclear-weapons capability and are not building one. — Newsweek

Since it’s obvious that there’s no possibility of getting real economic sanctions against Iran, what’s left to ‘pressure’ them with? Maybe a deal in which Israel gives up her nuclear deterrent in return?

As I’ve previously written, Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team appears to have what I would consider an anti-Israel tilt.  It will be very interesting to see whether Hillary Clinton, who has been very pro-Israel in her senatorial role, will  oppose or go along with this tendency.

Update [26 Nov 1009 PST]: Barack Obama is expected to name retired Marine Corps General James L. Jones as National Security Advisor. Jones has advocated sending NATO troops to the West Bank and has criticized Israel for placing obstacles in the path of the US project of arming and training Palestinian Authority (i.e., Fatah) forces. See Steve Rosen’s blog here.

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2 Responses to “Robert M. Gates: another realist joins Obama’s team”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I am sorry to say that what I foresee for Hillary Clinton is a Condeleeza- ization at State Department. She will not be able to stake out a strong position as more pro- Israel than the President without facing tremendous criticism for being disloyal, and pursuing her private political agenda.
    I believe the ’tilt’ towards a policy which is inimicable to Israeli interests will come, perhaps even very soon. I do not believe it will take the form of direct pressure against Israel of a kind which might arouse Congressional opposition. It will come by a series of initiatives towards those hostile to Israel, first of all , Iran. It will come through strengthening forces, even military forces in the Middle East which are potentially dangerous to Israel. It will come through shifting toward multi- lateral initiatives in the U.N. and elsewhere.
    However I believe that Obama would not at this point risk his tremendous popularity and political capitol to take on Israel now.
    What I suspect is that there will come an effort to somehow discredit Israel by making it time and again seem as the stubborn one, the odd man out, the one who persists in Occupation, and does not want peace, the obstacle to the U.S.’s winning universal love in the Middle East.
    I hope I am wrong. But I believe we are heading for very tough days ahead.

  2. ME says:

    Yes, if being a realist means one agrees with the “linkage theory,” then in principle, it does not sound bad.

    It is not exactly expressing support for Iran. I think sometimes, and I have mentioned this before, the term “peace” gets supplanted into the mix, but really, it is an appeal to the rational elements of Islamic society.

    This is a positive article and the excerpts are good. I don’t think the concepts pigeon hole Israel to the extent you indicate.

    This is a good reference for April 12, 2009 or April 10 blog comments on legal realists stuff.