Frankly, the investigative journalism gig has gotten pretty easy these days.
In the corridors of power, evidence is as easy to pick up as cigar butts used to be, of the cynical way the game is played. Evidence abounds fingering the rule-breakers and wrongdoers, deceivers and distorters, buck-passers and buck-wasters, and of course, the standard-bearers who get caught baring their double standards.
So today’s news is about a rare find among the Washington elite: A straight-talking top official who answers tough questions without the usual duck-and-dodge, who has a top job he never sought and doesn’t really want — and who even volunteers to take the blame for recommending a controversial presidential policy that flopped.
Yes, Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” host John King repeatedly pressed Gates about how back in March President Obama dispatched more troops to Afghanistan — but now says maybe a new strategy is needed. America’s the top general in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has reported the U.S. may soon be unable to halt the once defeated but resurgent Taliban. The general reported the Taliban is stronger than had been anticipated and believes as many as 40,000 more troops are needed.
“We’ve been at this nearly eight years,” King asked. “Why are we still surprised?”
To which Gates replied with un-Washingtonian candor: “Well, I will tell you, I think that the strategy that the president put forward in late March is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s. And that (1980s) strategy was more about the Soviet Union than it was about Afghanistan.”
Understand Gates and what he was saying. Gates is a Republican who was Director of Intelligence under President George H. W. Bush (whom he much admires) and reluctantly left his dream job as president of Texas A&M when President George W. Bush asked him to replace Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. Gates was astounded when President Obama asked him to stay on the job — something no defense secretary has ever done after the election of a president from the opposite party.
Gates could have waffled and weaseled, but he told the truth — even when it was sharply critical of his former boss, the son of his longtime friend: Bush 43 kept 60,000 Americans fighting the Afghanistan war without ever developing a strategy for fighting, let alone winning, it.
“That’s a pretty broad damnation of the Bush strategy,” said CNN’s King.
“Well,” Gates answered, “the reality is, we were fighting a holding action. We were very deeply engaged in Iraq.” Gates said he’d sent a small number of troops to Afghanistan as Bush’s defense secretary, but added: “We were too stretched to do more. And I think we did not have the kind of comprehensive strategy that we have now.”
Then King switched to Guantanamo Bay — reports that Obama will not be able to meet his Jan. 22, 2010 deadline for closing the prison where suspected terrorists were harshly interrogated. “I will be the first to tell you that, when the president-elect’s national security new team met in Chicago on December 7th, I was one of those who argued for a firm deadline,” Gates said. “Because I said that’s the only way you move the bureaucracy in Washington.”
Then Gates went to ABC News’ “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” where he hewed the same straight-talk line. While the common perception is that McChrystal has been asked not to send his formal request for more troops, Gates said he’s got it but won’t send it until the president says he’s settled on his strategy. “I’m going to sit on it until I think — or the president thinks — it’s appropriate to bring that into the discussion of the national security principles,” Gates said, again with the sort of candor rarely heard in the capital city.
Stephanopoulos final question was timely: “When you were working for President Bush, you used to keep a countdown clock on your desk, counting down the number of days you had left to serve. Is that clock still there?”
“No,” said Gates. “I threw the clock out. It was obviously useless.”
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)