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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not Missing Rumsfeld -- Yet

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People are so happy U.S. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld is leaving that they are overlooking the dark side of the man nominated to replace him, Robert Gates.

Now that U.S. President George W. Bush and Rumsfeld have undermined relations with nearly every other country in the world, Gates may finish it off by wrecking relations with the one country they haven't alienated too badly yet: Russia.

Yes, Gates came from the cautious presidential administration under Bush's father, where he was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Gates was the source of some of the worst mistakes by the administration under Bush the elder. He got his main beat -- the Soviet Union, and then Russia -- wrong time after time.

Gates persistently plugged the anti-Gorbachev line: that the glasnost and perestroika reforms were not what they seemed to be; the West should not help them in any way; the Soviet Union was becoming a more streamlined and skillful enemy; and that the whole thing was a plot to divide and deceive the West. Division was the main occupational fear for NATO, while deception was the occupational dread of the CIA. As CIA director, Gates had to be suspicious about being deceived by the Soviets, but he carried it to the point of circular reasoning and paranoia, treating any friendly Soviet initiative as a plot to ensnare the West. So he ended up deceiving himself into thinking that the most important Westernizing revolution in recent times was an anti-Western plot. Like current U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he was an expert on the Soviet Union, which boiled down to an expertise on the past and on how to maintain his old prejudices no matter what happened.

After the Berlin Wall came down, it became hard for U.S. officials to keep plugging the divide-and-deceive line. New ways were found, nevertheless, to express the functional equivalent: that the reform process was not a positive one for the West and that the United States should not engage constructively with it. Everything was changing, but not Gates' take on it.

Gates had plugged the same line under President Ronald Reagan, trying to undermine the administration's supposedly naive support for Gorbachev, and he was publicly and forcefully reprimanded for it by then-Secretary of State George Schultz. It was under the first President Bush that he did the real damage.

From the outset in 1989, Gates called for turn away from Reagan's approach. Gorbachev, when he first met Gates in May 1989, said: "I understand the White House has a special cell assigned to the task of discrediting Gorbachev. And I've heard that you are in charge, Mr. Gates." As late as January 1991, Gates was still showing barely concealed delight in Gorbachev's temporary turn to a hard line.

The U.S. media at the time criticized Gates' approach, accurately labeling it as "sleeping through history" and "Cold War nostalgia." Since then, amnesia appears to have set in, and it has become standard to praise the first President Bush and his team for their foreign policy expertise and to forget how poorly they used it. Only the elder Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker, the one non-expert, got Russia right, and his sound policy statements received little substantive follow-up. The costs were enormous. The years of revolutionary reform -- years when mountains were being moved inside the Soviet Union and could also have been moved in building a new Russia-West relationship -- were mostly wasted.

We are still paying for this lost opportunity.

Despite the persistent opposition from Gates and his allies within the first President Bush's team, a constructive relationship began tentatively to be developed with Russia after 1991. It was built more consistently after January 1993, when Bill Clinton moved into the White House and the crowd associated with Gates finally moved out. The new relation was no longer something that could be built wholesale and rapidly, as the Russian lava had already started settling and cooling in mid-1992. After that, mountains could no longer be moved. Progress was made gradually instead, with contradictions persisting in Russian policy just as they had in the first Gorbachev years. It took more than a decade to get the relation to the present halfway house: an ambivalent partnership coupled with a lot of bones of contention that could still turn it sour.

This relationship has suffered several new blows as President Vladimir Putin has veered away from democracy over the last two years. These blows have been limited by the careful, limited and mixed nature of Putin's policy changes and by caution on the part of the current Bush administration. But the relationship is still fragile enough that it could be destroyed quickly if the United States were to abandon caution for full-scale Russia-bashing -- a move that has been advocated in a number of quarters.

The United States' other partnerships are less fragile. Relations with Europe run long and deep. They have been harmed by Iraq, but they will be repaired as policy returns to a more sensible direction. Europeans are already optimistic following the U.S. mid-term election results.

But the relationship with Russia is unconsolidated and troubled. Rumsfeld had at least been working with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council, which remains one of the few semi-serious links that have been built between the West and Russia. But this will be all too easy for Gates, as secretary of defense, to undermine.

There were some outside counters to Gates' approach under Bush the elder, including the media and the Democratic Party, who both opposed this line. Today he would meet little opposition in bashing Russia -- a pastime that has once again become popular. Ironically, the only counterweight today might be Rice, who appears to have moderated her own stand, if only as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Indulging old feelings toward a Russia that is still a nuclear superpower and owns most of the critical geopolitical territory north of the Islamic world no longer made sense.

The question now is will Gates stick to the approach he advocated with regard to Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. Did he learn anything from these mistakes and does he understand how negative they were for the United States? Will he take a different approach?

During his Senate confirmation hearings, this is a matter on which the Senate should grill him.

Ira Straus is U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization.