Bob Gates Doesn’t Know Much About History

The former secretary of defense thinks this is the first time politics played a role in foreign policy? Please.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Readers of Foreign Policy might be dimly aware that former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates published a memoir this week. Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War offers lots of grimy details about Gates’s time serving both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations (there’s also some good stuff in there about a few foreign leaders). In both the excerpts and Gates’s publicity interviews this past week, he has expressed his central thesis loud and clear: The crafting of American foreign policy has changed, and not for the better. When Gates first came to Washington, politics was kept segmented from policy. During his term as secretary of defense, however, Gates found himself increasingly disgusted with Joe Biden the ways that partisan politics and blinkered strategic thinking affected policymaking.

As many observers have pointed out, it’s a bit rich for Gates to decry the role that politics plays in policymaking in a tell-all memoir published before his last boss has left office. It seems likely that the principal debate inside the Beltway will be about the ethics of Gates writing his tell-all so soon after leaving office. This would be a shame, however, because it would elide the bigger flaw in Gates’s worldview: his appalling understanding of the history of American foreign policy. If Gates thinks that the insertion of politics into foreign policy is a recent phenomenon, he needs to do his homework. It used to be worse — a hell of a lot worse.

The kerfuffle over Gates’s memoir started as I was knee-deep into Lynne Olson’s Those Angry Days, an absorbing chronicle of the fierce debates between isolationists and internationalists between the start of World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. Through the fog of history, that period is now seen as a hotly contested battle between the forces of reason, who correctly perceived the rising threat of fascism, and the forces of ignorance, who saw no reason to get involved in overseas wars.

As Olson illuminates, the truth is far seamier. To be sure, the isolationist camp was perfectly willing to play a nasty, brutish sort of politics. Isolationist members of Congress spearheaded hearings about whether Hollywood was inserting subtly pro-British messages into popular films. Prominent members of the America First group played on anti-British and anti-Semitic sentiment in the heartland to pressure Washington into staying out of Europe. At the same time, high-ranking anti-British members of the U.S. military actively leaked to isolationist columnists and congressmen in an attempt to thwart Lend-Lease and other forms of military aid to Britain. Indeed, in early December 1941, the Chicago Tribune and Washington Times-Herald published a bombshell story, detailing top-secret strategic military plans should the United States enter World War II. The story roiled D.C. for several days until the Dec. 7 Pearl Harbor attack mooted the debate. Montana Sen. Burton Wheeler, a prominent isolationist, later acknowledged that he was the source of the leak, but Olson argues that Army Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold most likely gave the plans to Wheeler. Why? Arnold was upset that the proposed strategy minimized the role of his beloved air force.

The internationalist camp, however, played politics even more fiercely. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his surrogates repeatedly accused isolationists of being part of a "fifth column" of Nazi sympathizers sent from Germany to weaken the United States. Roosevelt went beyond such rhetoric to combat his political adversaries. He formed an alliance with FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who had already engaged in the widespread surveillance of nativist groups. By 1939, the Justice Department knew that the FBI had "identifying data" on more than 10 million people. This included wiretaps that persisted despite a congressional ban on the practice and a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the ban. The FBI developed detailed dossiers on prominent isolationist opponents of FDR, including Wheeler and the aviator and social activist Charles Lindbergh. After a May 1940 foreign-policy address to Congress that generated critical telegrams, FDR ordered Hoover to look into the backgrounds of every individual who sent one.

Ironically, Roosevelt was obsessed about fifth columns at the same time that Prime Minister Winston Churchill established a British Security Coordination (BSC) group in the United States. The BSC — with the blessing of FDR and Hoover — was created to strengthen the internationalist camp and weaken the isolationists. According to Olson, "[BSC] planted propaganda in American newspapers, spied on isolationist groups, dug up political dirt on isolationists in Congress, and forged documents that, when brought to public attention, helped foment anti-Nazi sentiment."

The most political actor during this entire period was, of course, Roosevelt. Burned by his disastrous court-packing efforts and haunted by President Woodrow Wilson’s fall from grace after World War I, Roosevelt followed rather than led the American public on arming for war. Increasingly, the public generally supported Roosevelt’s internationalist bent — indeed, his 1940 Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie, won the nomination largely because his internationalism resonated far better than traditional Republican isolationism. Despite public support, however, FDR moved slowly to aid Britain and bolster America’s armed forces. Roosevelt’s tendency of announcing such policies without implementing them drove Churchill crazy — not to mention his own defense establishment.

Despite a far nastier strain of politics 70 years ago, both FDR and the United States eventually adopted the correct policies. Similarly, Gates acknowledges in his memoirs that despite the role that politics played, Obama likewise made the right foreign-policy calls. What seems to offend the former secretary of defense is the idea that politics played any role in foreign-policy decision-making.

Which, if you think about it, is insane. Foreign policy and national security are inherently political bailiwicks. It is increasingly difficult for presidents to launch major foreign-policy initiatives without a modicum of popular and congressional support. To accuse the Obama administration of factoring in the political is to accuse it of not committing political malpractice. In retrospect, had Bush and his advisor Karl Rove factored politics into their National Security Strategy, maybe it would not have been so unsustainable.

I have no doubt that Gates thinks of himself as having been beyond the political fray, crafting policy decisions like a Platonic guardian surrounded by a sea of political pack rats. As an ex-cabinet member who has left the political stage, he’s entitled to that opinion. But he’s not allowed to pretend that it’s worse now than it used to be.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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