This was July 1986, and the Reagan Administration's Middle East policy was in shreds. The cornerstone of that policy, the May 17th Agreement, which was supposed to bring peace to Lebanon and Lebanon's recognition of Israel, was clinically dead. The CIA's chief in Beirut had been murdered the year before. Iranian-backed groups were holding dozens of American hostages. It was hard to imagine things getting worse. They did. Four months later the Iran-contra scandal broke.
Gates, the deputy director then, no doubt must have suspected the White House was trading arms for hostages (though he has always insisted he was kept in the dark about the operation). But Gates was not only an intelligence professional; he seemed to be a man with a fine political sense. He probably knew there was nothing he could do to stop a White House bent on folly, short of holding a press conference in front of the CIA's main gate. And he apparently never thought it was his position to blow the whistle.
This was also a time when Bill Casey, the director, was running a bulldozer through the CIA trying to reform the place. As his deputy, Gates could have joined in, but he didn't. He knew it took years to change a bureaucracy the size of the CIA. Gates also distrusted bold initiatives. When Casey set up the Counter-Terrorism Center, the warhorse he was going to ride into battle against the terrorists, Gates was nowhere to be seen. When I worked at the Counter-Terrorism Center and was summoned upstairs to brief Casey on a particularly wild operation, Gates wasn't there. It wasn't because he wasn't welcome. He was busy running the CIA, taking care of the boring details details Casey was delighted to delegate.
I had a small window into Iran-contra and my impression was that Gates was never one of the main players, if one at all. Although I wasn't surprised that the scandal forced him to withdraw his nomination to replace Casey in 1987, I also wasn't surprised that Congress and the special prosecutor essentially gave him a pass. Or that in 1991 he eventually was confirmed as CIA director. Gates didn't mind being the little gray man, keeping his name off policies that could blow up in his face.
In the CIA, Gates established a reputation for discretion and consensus. He let Casey fight the CIA's secret wars and the even more vicious inside-the-Beltway wars. He must have driven the special prosecutor crazy during Iran-contra, sticking to the truth but giving up nothing that could sink the Reagan Administration. When Gates finally left government, he wrote a bland, ruffle-no-feathers memoir. He never talked out of school about the Bushes. He never took on the CIA in public or offended the rank and file. Gates is a company man, a loyal civil servant, a realist. Reducing him to a Bush family retainer misses his real character.
Here's what I expect from Gates: He'll figure out who's important in the Pentagon and make sure to consult them on every major decision. The generals will be brought back onto the reservation. We won't be seeing any editorials in the Army Times calling for Gates's removal. We also won't be hearing about Gates going to the ideologues at the American Enterprise Institute or cafe exiles for advice on the Middle East. Gates knows how to find talent inside the bureaucracy or, if he does go outside, among his former colleagues from the George H.W. Bush Administration. I wouldn't be surprised if we hear a lot more from James Baker and the Iraq Study Group, which Gates himself has been serving on.
Finally, unlike the Rumsfeld Pentagon, the Gates Pentagon will deal in fact. Gates knows good intelligence from bad. Think tanks, intelligence contractors and data miners might want to start looking for other clients. Still, one of the accusations that will be leveled at Gates is that he exaggerated the Soviet threat during the Reagan Administration. He cooked the books so Reagan could justify a bigger defense budget, or so it is said. This will be a hard one to prove. Soviet assessments were always an imprecise art. Anyhow, it was the entire CIA that missed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and not just Gates. The point is that no intelligence assessment Gates had his hand on ever came close to the drivel Doug Feith's Office of Special Plans put out before the Iraq war.
If Gates's appointment means Bush is waking up to realpolitik, Bob Gates is as good an aide as any. Who knows, he may be the one who will set the stage for an eventual withdrawal from Iraq. After all, he knows all about failed Middle East policies, and how to salvage what can be salvaged. And Bush certainly can use a little of Gates's discretion. Another prima donna at the Pentagon is the last thing the President needs.
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is the author of See No Evil and most recently, the novel Blow the House Down