From Dan Ellsberg and Vietnam to Bob Gates and NATO Expansion

The ex-defense secretary wrote in his 2014 memoir that expanding NATO inevitably provoked Russia—and kept silent to George W. Bush instead of doing something about it.

From Dan Ellsberg and Vietnam to Bob Gates and NATO Expansion
Robert Gates shakes hands with Vladimir Putin at the Munich Security Conference in 2007.

Edited by Sam Thielman

DANIEL ELLSBERG'S DEATH ON FRIDAY prompted me to eulogize him for The Nation. (The piece also went out to FOREVER WARS paid subscribers, a group I hope includes you.) The back third of the essay goes into the lack of Ellsbergs during the War on Terror—not whistleblowers, of which there were many, but elite-tier foreign-policy practitioners whose exposure to the horrific human consequences-at-scale of Washington's abstract decisionmaking prompted a permanent break. Ellsberg was unquestionably in that elite tier: He briefed Henry Kissinger ahead of Kissinger becoming national security adviser.

You wouldn't expect many Daniel Ellsbergs, for obvious reasons. Peter Beinart, in his own reflection on Ellsberg, referenced a cohort within American Jewish institutions "who will not speak honestly about their real beliefs about Israel-Palestine because people fear losing their jobs, people fear kind of social ostracism." Ellsberg was hesitant about becoming the man we honor as Daniel Ellsberg of blessed memory. But you might expect more than zero Daniel Ellsbergs, especially after Daniel Ellsberg.

By contrast, a couple months ago, for an unrelated story, I re-read sections of ex-Defense Secretary Bob Gates' 2014 memoir, Duty, and encountered something that strikes me as functionally the opposite of Ellsbergian behavior. Gates writes about knowing by 2007 that the expansion of NATO was provocative to Russia. He does so casually, even offhandedly—a tone he maintains while mentioning doing nothing to act on that insight. Gates at the time was one of the most powerful people in the U.S. foreign-policy enterprise.

Now, just to get this out of the way: If you're nervous that this newsletter will offer up apologies for Vladimir Putin, it will not. I've written again and again that the principal malefactor in the Ukraine War is Putin—"Putin" here is a synecdoche for the broader faction in Russia behind invading Ukraine. But to me, discussion of the Ukraine War starts there. It doesn't end there. I think Ukraine is Russia's Iraq War, Putin is its George W. Bush and the U.S. is Iran, arming and sponsoring proxies for whom it has genuine regard and also because of an opportunity to bleed an enemy. Anyway, with that out of the way, on with this one random point I wanted to make about Bob Gates, his ilk and Dan Ellsberg.

FOR EVERYTHING THAT FOLLOWS, remember that Gates wrote his memoir before the Maidan Uprising of 2014, let alone the subsequent Russian decision to seize Crimea and the Donbass, and long before the full-on February 2022 Russian invasion to gobble up Ukraine. That means Gates was writing before any account of the following incident or his reflections on it was politically controversial.

Back in 2007, Gates, formerly a CIA Kremlinologist and by then newly installed as defense secretary, attended the most eventful Munich Security Conference ever. At that fateful gathering, Putin pointed to the wreckage of the War on Terror (and beyond) and basically said he's done with what Americans call the "Rules-Based International Order," in which Americans and their allies set the rules. Yet conflict between Russia and NATO seemed so remote that Gates recounted responding with "humor." He threw a line into his subsequent speech about how one Cold War had been enough.

When George W. Bush asked how Munich went, Gates recounts telling Bush about "the arrogance" of American officials, businessmen and intellectuals who for nearly two decades told a weak Russia how to organize its economy and its foreign policy—something that "led to deep and long-term [Russian] resentment and bitterness." Gates actually had more than that in mind, but he didn't share it.

"What I didn't tell the president," recalled the old Cold Warrior, "was that I believed the relationship with Russia had been badly mismanaged after Bush 41 left office in 1993." Gates doesn't explain why he doesn't tell this to Bush, but one obvious explanation is he wasn't willing to tell Bush, his boss, that Bush, like Bill Clinton, had fucked up.

Getting Gorbachev to acquiesce to a unified Germany as a member of NATO had been a huge accomplishment. But moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to incorporate so many of its former subjugated states into NATO was a mistake. Including the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary quickly was the right thing to do, but I believe the process should have then slowed. U.S. agreements with the Romanian and Bulgarian governments to rotate troops through bases in those countries was a needless provocation (especially since we virtually never deployed the 5,000 troops to either country). The Russians had long historical ties to Serbia, which we largely ignored. Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching. The roots of the Russian Empire trace back to Kiev in the ninth century, so that was an especially monumental provocation. Were the Europeans, much less the Americans, willing to send their sons and daughters to defend Ukraine or Georgia? Hardly. So NATO expansion was a political act, not a carefully considered military commitment, thus undermining the purpose of the alliance and recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests.

What a thing not to say to the the president who committed the "truly overreaching act" of dangling an unrealistic NATO accession to an unprepared, west-looking government in post-Orange Revolution Kiev – an act that resulted in what Stephen Wertheim, in a recent essay about jettisoning the myth of NATO blamelessness, reasonably summed up as  "provoking Russia without securing Ukraine." Bush was exactly the guy who needed to hear Gates' dismal assessment of what U.S. policy toward Russia had wrought, and where it was going next.

But it turns out that Gates saves the really harsh truths for post-retirement memoirs with titles like Duty. "We did a poor job of seeing the world from [Russia's] point of view, and of managing the relationship for the long term," Gates continues. "All that said, I was now President Bush's secretary of defense, and I dutifully supported the effort to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO (with few pangs of conscience because by 2007 it was clear the French and Germans would not allow it)."

What a tragic understanding of duty. Gates had unique influence during his time in the Bush administration: arrived at the Pentagon, to the audible relief of Washington greybeards, to salvage Bush's wars. He chose acquiescence instead. It is a story we've seen before, and recently. Does it haunt Gates, to have had that power and not used it? We know a similar kind of power haunted Daniel Ellsberg and motivated Ellsberg to do something with it.

JACK CROSBIE OF DISCOURSE BLOG did a fun interview with me and Evan about WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #2 and the broader themes of the series. "Iran-Contra but with superheroes" is a line from Evan I loved. Jack, an excellent war correspondent, seized upon one of my references in the second issue—the cameo appearance of the Atlacatl Battalion and its American sponsorship, which, as I tell Jack, I definitely want people to Google. We don't really spoil much in this interview, but maybe buy and read the issues first? I really want to call attention to some comments Evan makes about templates for Amanda, but there's a chance they might spoil a dynamic that drives the latest issue.

Thanks to Jack and Discourse Blog for the interview, and also thanks to JHU Comics (Nate and Craig in particular) for a great time on Wednesday signing in Manhattan. Big thanks to everyone who came out!

BACK IN 2016, I REPORTED A PIECE warning people that the FBI was not a bulwark against Donald Trump, and, oh hey, look at this.

THE NEW YORK TIMES uses Trump's go-get-Biden's remarks as an opportunity to drill a bit further into an idea that Trumpist Justice Department/Office and Management and Budget alumni Jeffrey Clark and Russell Vought recently cooked up: "They are condemning Mr. Biden and Democrats for what they claim is the politicization of the justice system, but at the same time pushing an intellectual framework that a future Republican president might use to justify directing individual law enforcement investigations." I've been writing for years that Trump is out to suborn the "Deep State" rather than eradicate it. REIGN OF TERROR's final two chapters in particular delve into this. Notice as well, as the Times does, that Ron DeSantis agrees with Clark.

KICKING MYSELF that our Pat Robertson obit didn't go into his foreign-policy legacy beyond the War on Terror. Luckily, my Nation colleague Jeet Heer covered it.

ALEX PAREENE WRITING ABOUT REDDIT had me staring at the plaster on my wall after reading this:

We are living through the end of the useful internet. The future is informed discussion behind locked doors, in Discords and private fora, with the public-facing web increasingly filled with detritus generated by LLMs [large language models; AI], bearing only a stylistic resemblance to useful information. Finding unbiased and independent product reviews, expert tech support, and all manner of helpful advice will now resemble the process by which one now searches for illegal sports streams or pirated journal articles. The decades of real human conversation hosted at places like Reddit will prove useful training material for the mindless bots and deceptive marketers that replace it.

MATT DUSS has a really good overview of the vanishing promises of Joe Biden to reinvigorate America's promotion of human rights—I know, I know, I'm also laughing to keep from crying—ahead of Biden's state dinner for elected Indian ethnonationalist strongman Narendra Modi this week. These are the interests of the China Cold War at work—pull India into the U.S. camp as a bulwark (as well, India is a major arms export market for Russia)—so expect to see much more of this kind of thing as Biden pursues one and creates a Democratic legacy for it.

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL REPORTED ON TUESDAY that the United States—a country that has spent decades waging economic warfare on Cuba; attempting regime change, including through coup sponsorships and assassination attempts; illegally occupying Guantanamo Bay in explicit defiance of its sovereignty—is making the following argument against a Chinese military presence in Cuba:

The Biden administration has contacted Cuban officials to try to forestall the deal, seeking to tap in to what it thinks might be Cuban concerns about ceding sovereignty.

Can't wait to see how successfully this one goes! Also, tell me more about how the U.S. doesn't consider the Western Hemisphere a sphere of influence.