MADMAN THEORY

01.25.16 5:13 AM ET

‘Wise Man’ Robert Gates Trashes Donald Trump, Doubts Obama’s Spunk

The former CIA director and defense secretary isn’t saying who he likes in the current presidential field—but he’s clear about who and what he doesn’t like.

Robert Gates, 72 years old and widely recognized these days as one of the few “wise men” left around Washington, doesn’t have much good to say about the current crop of presidential candidates.

When it comes to confronting the so-called Islamic State and other jihadists, the former CIA chief and defense secretary told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week, “I think middle school kids would be embarrassed by the level of dialogue going on in the national campaign.”

“I think that these guys, men and women, are making these broad pronouncements, [and] it’s clear they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Gates said, citing some of the more outrageous remarks about making “the sand glow,” “carpet bombing,” and “bombing the shit out of them,” which he attributed to “the leading candidate,” meaning Donald Trump.

“This is not a particularly sophisticated analysis of the challenge that we face,” Gates told the think tank’s audience, amid considerable laughter. “The worrying thing is [if] they actually believe what they are saying, and if that is the case we really are in trouble, so we are in a situation where the optimistic interpretation is they’re just being cynical and opportunistic.”

But Gates, who served President Obama as defense secretary during the first term, dealt frankly with some of No-Drama Obama’s failings as well.

“I think that the president all along has underestimated ISIS, has underestimated the degree of fear that they are able to provoke among a lot of Americans,” Gates said. “The president, I think, has completely misread the psychological impact of these lone wolf attacks or these ‘small-scale attacks’ that result in multiple casualties that have been sponsored by ISIS or by people radicalized by ISIS and acting as lone wolves.”

This question of underestimated threats and misread reactions, in fact, has been a problem across the board for the Obama administration’s foreign policy, particularly in recent years.

So on Saturday, when the ever-active Gates was snowed in a block from the White House, where he had dispensed information and vital insights to eight presidents, I gave him a call to try to find out why Obama has been surprised again and again by dictators and, indeed, terrorists, around the world.

Gates, nursing a bit of a cold, mainly wanted to talk about his new book, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service.

But you can’t talk about leadership in the United States, and especially in foreign policy, without talking about current and future presidents. And Gates nailed the problem with Obama: He is a hyper-rationalist in what’s still an irrational world.

The view, it should be said, is not unique to Gates. As a longtime colleague of his at the CIA observed in private a couple of weeks ago, it may be wise to keep one’s adversaries off balance and guessing just how crazy you might be.

One remembers President Nixon’s famous and infamous “Madman Theory,” trying to convince the North Vietnamese in 1968 that he “might do anything to stop the war” that was raging in Southeast Asia.

In the 1980s the Russians really were unsure how far President Reagan would push them on land, at sea, in the air and, most important, in outer space.

President George W. Bush, one might argue, took the madman theory far too far, launching a war in Iraq that proved insanely destructive to U.S. interests.

Obama, on the other hand, is a “mature, measured, responsible individual,” as the veteran spook put it. “And Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—they don’t give a shit about mature, measured, and responsible.”

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Gates, rather more elegantly, made much the same argument over the phone.

“I think that philosophically the president and [Secretary of State] John Kerry have believed that they were at a point in history where the rule of law and rational decision-making on these issues, and a nation’s good understanding of its long-term national interest, would prevail,” Gates told The Daily Beast.

“But that certainly does not apply to most of the rest of the world, where you have leaders who, frankly, are stuck in a 19th-20th century approach to advancing their nations’ interests and defending their nations’ interests,” Gates said. “And from the standpoint of the person who is logical and rational, you ask yourself, ‘Why are they doing that? That makes no sense whatsoever.’”

The problem is not new. Gates remembered that when he was at the CIA in 1979, the consensus at the agency was that the Russians would not invade Afghanistan. There was no reason for them to do it. Obviously, it would be a huge mistake. So even though Moscow had 30,000 to 40,000 troops ready to cross the border, the CIA concluded, “We don’t think they’ll do it.” But of course they did.

Similar unreal realism afflicts Obama and Kerry, according to Gates: “I just think that there’s a sense in their minds that the United States has advanced to that kind of a rational assessment of its national interests… and, ‘Why isn’t everybody else lining up?’ And it’s because nearly everybody else is stuck in an old paradigm.”

How do you change that? Do we want credibly crazy people in office? (The veteran spook had suggested Trump might qualify on that count.)

Again, Gates’s response was more measured.

“You have to start with what is logical and sensible, and what’s common sense,” he said. “But then you have to present your policies—you have to talk about your policies—in a way that addresses these 19th- and 20th-century approaches to problem solving.”

Case in point: Iran. “You may decide that a nuclear accord with Iran is entirely in everybody’s interests, including ours and the Iranians’,” said Gates. “But at the same time you realize that there is a power struggle going on continually in Iran, and you basically announce in parallel with the arms control agreement, ‘And oh, by the way, here are the things that we are going to do to strengthen our military presence and increase our engagement in the region as a way of reassuring our friends and allies in the region.’”

Arguably, that’s what the Obama administration has done, or thinks it has done, but as Gates sees it, there’s not a sharp enough edge.

The stand confronting Iranian adventurism outside the framework of the nuclear agreement “has been very weak,” said Gates. He would like to see “something much broader than just more special ops forces to fight ISIS, and so on. I am talking about a major U.S. initiative in terms of an increased military presence, increased military support for our friends and allies, a major effort to get them to work together as a regional security effort, and a comprehensive strategy on how you push back against Iranian meddling.”

“The irony,” said Gates, “is the ayatollah [Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei] announced exactly that thing on the Iranian side: ‘Just because we signed that agreement, don’t expect us to change any of our behavior. We are going to be just as aggressive going after the Great Satan.’”

The former CIA chief and defense secretary has said many times that he thinks presidents resort to force too often, but that is distinct, in fact, from making a threat of force credible, whether it is implicit or explicit.

Gates likes to cite the example of President Eisenhower, who was the commander of allied forces in Europe in World War II, then president of the United States from 1953 to 1961 in the potentially apocalyptic early days of the Cold War.

Gates rattled off his accomplishments: “Eisenhower, came in, faced a Russia that had just developed a thermonuclear weapon; China had just developed their own nuclear weapon for the first time. He faced a French war in Indochina where the [U.S.] Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously asked him to use nuclear weapons to help the French. He faced repeated crises with China over Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait. He faced a Middle East war involving our closest allies, and he got them to stop. He faced revolutions in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary, a revolution in Cuba. And yet between the time that he became president and signed the North Korean armistice in the middle of 1953 until he left office, not one American soldier was killed in combat.

“I don’t think Dwight Eisenhower was a wimp,” said Gates, “and the funny thing was he did it all kind of effortlessly. Everybody thought all he did was go out and play golf on the White House lawn. And, you know, there wasn’t a lot of bluster or anything, he just got it done.”

So, getting back to the current campaign to choose the next president of the United States, who does Gates favor?

He says there might be two or three among the candidates, “but only two or three,” who bring the skills needed, and he’s not naming them. One might surmise that Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush could, theoretically, be on the Gates short list. But it’s clear that Donald Trump is not.

“If you read the chapter on personal characteristics I require for successful leadership, you would find that he probably does not fill the bill on a number of those counts,” said Gates. “It’s just pure speculation, but the kind of people he would likely surround himself with: Are they going to be independent-minded? And is he going to welcome contrary points of view and consider those carefully, and try and build a team, and allow others to take credit?”

Does that mean you can’t be a bully and also a good leader?

“I don’t think so,” said Gates.