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Robert Gates: A Cold War Bombthrower Becomes Iraq War Saviour

Two decades ago, Robert Gates wanted to bomb Nicaragua, considered too extreme even by the Reagan administration. Now Official Washington is treating Gates as the returning Wise Man who will get us out of Iraq.

While in charge of the CIA's analytical division in the mid-1980s, Robert M. Gates made wildly erroneous predictions about the dangers posed by leftist-ruled Nicaragua and espoused policy prescriptions considered too extreme even by the Reagan administration, in one case advocating the U.S. bombing of Nicaragua.

Gates -- now President George W. Bush's nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary -- expressed his alarmist views about Nicaragua and the need to bomb the country's military targets in a secret Dec. 14, 1984, memorandum to then-CIA Director William Casey.

The memo has new relevance today because Gates's private advice to Casey suggests that Gates was either more of an extremist ideologue than many in Washington believe or he was pandering to Casey's personal zealotry.

Either possibility raises questions about Gates's fitness to run the Pentagon at a time when many observers believe it needs strong doses of realism and independence to stand up to both a strong-willed President and influential neoconservative theorists who promoted the invasion of Iraq.

The Iraq War -- now exceeding the length of U.S. participation in World War II -- has been marked by politicized intelligence, over-reliance on force, fear of challenging the insider tough-guy talk, and lack of respect for international law -- all tendencies that Gates has demonstrated in his career.

Cold Warrior

In the 1980s, Gates was a Cold War hardliner prone to exaggerate the Soviet threat, which put him in the good graces of Reagan administration officials. They also rejected the growing evidence of a rapid Soviet decline in order to justify a massive U.S. military build-up and aggressive interventions in Third World conflicts.

Put in charge of the CIA's analytical division, which supposedly is dedicated to objective analysis, Gates instead pleased his boss Casey by taking an over-the-top view of the danger posed by Nicaragua, an impoverished Third World nation then ruled by leftist Sandinista revolutionaries who had ousted right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

Though Gates opens his December 1984 memo with the declaration that "it is time to talk absolutely straight about Nicaragua," he then ignores many relevant facts that get in the way of his thesis about the need to launch air strikes against Sandinista military targets and to overthrow the supposedly "Marxist-Leninist" regime.

For instance, Gates makes no mention of the fact that only a month earlier, the Sandinistas had won an election widely praised for its fairness by European and other international observers. But the Reagan administration had pressured pro-U.S. candidate Arturo Cruz into withdrawing when it became clear he would lose -- and then denounced the election as a "sham."

Without assessing whether the Sandinistas had any real commitment to democracy, Gates adopts the Reagan administration's favored position -- that Nicaragua's elected president Daniel Ortega was, in effect, a Soviet-style dictator.

"The Nicaraguan regime is steadily moving toward consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist government and the establishment of a permanent and well armed ally of the Soviet Union and Cuba on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere," Gates wrote to Casey.

The Gates assessment, however, turned out to be wrong. Rather than building a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, the Sandinistas competed six years later in a robust presidential election -- even allowing the United States to pour in millions of dollars to help elect Washington's favored candidate, Violeta Chamorro.

The Sandinistas respected the election results, ceding power to Chamorro. The Sandinistas also have competed in subsequent elections with Ortega finally regaining the presidency in the latest election held in November 2006.

Aggressive Intent?

In the 1984 memo, Gates also promotes another right-wing canard of the era -- that Nicaragua's procurement of weapons was proof of its aggressive intentions, not an attempt at national self-defense.

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