By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — As the Ukraine crisis deepened, Sen. John McCain responded by criticizing President Obama’s “feckless” foreign policy, while Sen. Lindsey Graham called Obama “a weak and indecisive president [who] invites aggression.”
These sharp comments brought to mind a different time and crisis — and a different tone in foreign policy debates. This prompted me to call another prominent Republican who takes a quite different view. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, a brief historical digression.
The year was 1980. The Iranian revolution had toppled the shah’s regime, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan and the United States’ president, Jimmy Carter, was widely perceived as a weak leader. Looking for a sharp-edged evaluation of the situation, I decided to interview Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, a leading hawk.
What Jackson, D-Wash., said was surprising, even at a distance of nearly 35 years. Rather than demanding tougher statements or more saber-rattling, he said he worried about “overreaction” to events: “We appear to be going from one crisis to another,” with Washington dispensing “red-hot rhetoric at least once a week about the dire consequences of this or that or something else.”
“We need to be prudent,” said Jackson, who was perhaps the most prominent Cold Warrior of his day. “There is a need for the U.S. to make careful decisions, stand by those decisions, and avoid sending false or conflicting signals” to U.S. allies or the Russians.
Jackson’s message, in essence, was “cool it.” The Wall Street Journal, for which I covered the Senate at the time, published the interview on its editorial page under the headline “The World According to Scoop.” Times are different now, certainly on Capitol Hill. But Jackson’s theme is as relevant as ever.
Seeking the kind of perspective that Jackson offered back in 1980, I spoke Tuesday with one of America’s longest-serving national security veterans, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. In addition to having run the Pentagon under Republican and Democratic administrations, Gates worked at the CIA for 26 years and was one of its leading Soviet analysts. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Kremlin decision-making.
What does Gates think about the Ukraine crisis? Distilled to its essence, his message would be the same as Jackson’s: Cool it, especially when it comes to public comments.
“I think considerable care needs to be taken in terms of what is said, so that the rhetoric doesn’t threaten what policy can’t deliver,” Gates explained in a telephone interview. Russian President Vladimir Putin “holds most of the high cards” in Crimea and Ukraine as a whole. U.S. policy should work to reinforce the security of neighboring states without fomenting a deeper crisis in which Putin will have the advantage.
Specifically, said Gates, the U.S. should help NATO allies such as Poland and the Baltic states enhance their readiness to resist any future Russian moves. The U.S. could encourage a rotation of NATO aircraft to beef up defenses on Russia’s border, for example. That’s the kind of power play that can check Putin, because it is realistic and sustainable.
Gates said that Obama is correct to avoid loose talk about military options. “I’d even be cautious about sending warships into the Black Sea,” Gates explained. “It’s a threatening gesture, but if you’re not prepared to do something about it, it’s an empty gesture.”
I asked Gates what he thought about the criticism of Obama by McCain and Graham. “They’re egging him on” to take actions that may not be effective, Gates warned. He said he “discounted” their deeper argument that Obama had invited the Ukraine crisis by not taking a firmer stand on Syria or other foreign policy issues. Even if Obama had bombed Syria or kept troops in Iraq or otherwise shown a tougher face, “he still would have the same options in Ukraine. Putin would have the same high cards.”
Gates, a Republican himself, urged the GOP senators to “tone down” their criticism and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president.”
Gates can be an emotional person when he talks about national security issues, as any reader of his recent memoir, “Duty,” can see. And he showed some of that emotion when he said, near the end of our conversation: “It seems to me that trying to speak with one voice — one American voice — seems to have become a quaint thing of the past. I regret that enormously.”
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.