WASHINGTON -- With President U.S. Grant's long, narrow desk behind him, he works at Gen. John Pershing's spacious partners desk, and converses with guests at a round table used by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, part of the reassuring furniture of government for most of 42 years, will soon serve his eighth president in a career that began in 1966 when Gates joined the CIA, of which he became director 25 years later.
On Nov. 1, 1979, he was note-taker when Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, met in Algiers with representatives of Iran's radical Islamic regime that had just overthrown the shah, who had fled to the West. Brzezinski assured the Iranians that America would recognize their revolution, sell them weapons the shah had wanted and embrace normal relations. They demanded the shah. Brzezinski rejected that as dishonorable. Three days later, U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran.
"I actually think," Gates says, "there is a reasonable chance" some combination of diplomatic and economic carrots and sticks can deter Iran, with its ramshackle economy and restive citizenry, from acquiring nuclear weapons, even though its nuclear quest began under the shah. Will other nations assist U.S. nonproliferation efforts? Gates answers obliquely, noting that Vladimir Putin told him that Iran is Russia's biggest security threat. And, he says, Iran might yet recognize that acquiring nuclear weapons would be a net subtraction from its security, if that acquisition provoked nearby nations to become nuclear powers.
Regarding Iraq, Gates is parsimonious with his confidence, noting that "the multisectarian democracy has not sunk very deep roots yet." He stresses, however, that there is bipartisan congressional support for "a long-term residual presence" of perhaps 40,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, and that the president-elect's recent statements have not precluded that. Such a presence "for decades" has, he says, followed major U.S. military operations since 1945, other than in Vietnam. And he says, "Look at how long Britain has had troops in Cyprus."
Regarding Afghanistan, Gates recalls with a flicker of a smile that two decades ago, when "we were the quartermaster for the mujahedeen" fighting the Soviet army, "I was pumping arms across the border to some of the same guys" America is dealing with today. He is encouraged by the "dramatic expansion" of Afghanistan's national army and police. But when asked if Afghanistan has ever had a national government whose writ ran nationwide, he says "no."