The first key test for the new Democratic Majority in the Senate will be whether or not to confirm Robert Gates as new Secretary of Defense. It is too early to tell for sure, but with the relief at the firing of Rumsfeld, it seems unlikely anyone will seriously challenge Gates, a man who is often thought of as the creation of Reagan’s CIA director William Casey. Senator Joe Biden, new chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said yesterday that Gates has a much more “pragmatic and realistic view of the place we find ourselves.”
In the media Gates is being hailed, along with the reappearance of Jim Baker, as a return to sanity. Both are members of the Iraq Study Group. It has all the appearances of a supra State Department for deciding what to do in Iraq. All thanks in large part to Bush senior who is thought to be sending in a rescue team to get his boy off the hook.
Gates faced rough confirmation hearings in 1991 when appointed CIA director by Bush senior. There was concern about his manipulation of intelligence back then, but more than that, official Washington didn’t know whether to trust him because of his relationship with Ollie North in the secret Iran-Contra war. At the time, Gates brushed aside questions on Iran-Contra, saying he couldn’t remember details, or apologetically stating that he should have given the whole situation closer attention. In the end, Congress attributed whatever errors were made to Casey, the CIA director at the time, who was long viewed as a strong, independent-minded anti-Communist of a somewhat bizarre sort. But as has been noted before, Gates often was thought of as Casey’s man, and it was Casey who put him in a top job as deputy director and chair of the National Intelligence Council.
At Gates’ confirmation hearings in 1991, the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee appeared weary of Iran-Contra. Warren Rudman, then a Republican congressman from New Hampshire, remarked, “I might say parenthetically that I hope someday I will never have to talk about this subject again. But I guess it just keeps coming up. It’s almost like a typhus epidemic in that anybody within five miles of the germ either died, is infected, or is barely able to survive, so I guess we’re back in that mode again.”
That was 15 years ago. The memories of most people in Congress aren’t likely to go back that far.