At the commencement ceremony held on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University on Dec. 19, 2009, the speaker was honored with the degree of doctor of humane letters and upheld as an exemplary individual before the assembled hundreds of IU graduates. One might have thought that the recipient of this signal distinction was some large-hearted benefactor to the human race.
Maybe a scientist who had dedicated many years of selfless toil to the discovery of a cure for a killer disease. Or a humanitarian who had established schools and hospitals in underserved parts of the world. Possibly an apostle of peace who had worked tirelessly to resolve a festering international conflict. Someone whose heroic efforts had prevented loss of life amid present and future generations of concerned parties in a prolonged conflict.
Unfortunately such reasonable expectations are wide off the mark in regard to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the invited speaker at the winter commencement. The secretary has been best known since 2006 as a prominent enabler of the wars that have ravaged life and society in Iraq and Afghanistan. His most conspicuous recent achievement was advocating the escalation of a merciless war waged in Afghanistan by a powerful, technologically superior military against a country whose essentially defenseless population is innocent of complicity in perpetrating attacks on the United States.
"The secretary has been best known since 2006 as a prominent enabler of the wars that have ravaged life and society in Iraq and Afghanistan."One can hardly consider that he is setting an example to be followed by others. Since when have the facilitators of ruthless neocolonial wars been thought to be worthy of serving as role models for hundreds of newly minted university graduates?
International treaties to which the United States is a signatory require occupying powers to proceed with due respect for the lives and property of civilians living in war zones. In practice, the rules of humane warfare are honored more in the breach rather than the observance because of the tendency of the U.S. military to use disproportionate force in conducting air strikes and ground assaults. Noncombatants in Iraq and Afghanistan have paid with their lives for strategies of engagement, which are intended to minimize military casualties on the U.S. side. According to the United Nations, civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose by 40 percent in 2008. US, NATO and Afghan forces killed 39 percent of the 2,118 people who died in 2008 as a direct consequence of the armed conflict. Of those 829 deaths, 552 were blamed on air strikes. These casualties have taken place on the watch of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Secretary Gates's controversial appearance at IU and the encomiums that were lavished on him at the commencement make it relevant to pose the following questions. Should an institution of higher education not view its mission as being one of implicitly supporting the ideals of a just and humane society? And should these ideals not include, for instance, the belief that the United States should honor international covenants requiring the protection of civilians living in the midst of war and occupation?
If these questions were answered in the affirmative, then surely Secretary Gates should not have been honored by IU. Glaring as are the moral implications of his IU visit, they went unnoticed by the majority of participants in the commencement. Still they were not brushed aside completely. Outside the commencement venue two dozen protesters, among them a graduating student opposed the Secretary's presence. "I won't walk with a warlord" was the declaration that appeared in bold letters on the sign held by Alex Smith as he stood in his cap and gown.
The doctorate of humane letters bestowed by IU is not the sole award that the Secretary of Defense has garnered this year. He also enjoys the distinction of being a star protagonist in the list for 2009-10 of the top 25 underreported news stories of national importance issued by Project Censored.
"Should an institution of higher education not view its mission as being one of implicitly supporting the ideals of a just and humane society?"As the well-regarded and independently funded Project Censored states on its Web site, this media program conducts research on important national news stories that are underreported, ignored, misrepresented or censored by the US corporate media. Under the headline "Obama's Military Appointments Have Corrupt Past," Project Censored notes that Gates, along with some other appointees, embodies many of the worst elements of U.S. national security policy over the past three decades, including responsibility for "politicized intelligence" and "lack of transparency." These assessments are based on evidence provided by former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman, author of Failure of Intelligence and investigative journalist Robert Parry, a former Newsweek reporter who played a pivotal role in breaking the Iran-Contra story.
In Goodman's study of the CIA, the author notes that politicization of intelligence and analysis, or the systematic slanting of intelligence collection, to serve policy interests became institutionalized in the 1980s during the tenure of William Casey as CIA director (1981-1987). Over this period Gates was Casey's man in the CIA. He successfully used policies of reorganization and personnel management to assume direct control over all CIA intelligence analysis and to bolster reporting that emphasized the Soviet threat and inhibited analysis that emphasized Moscow's economic problems and worsening international position.
The bias built into CIA reporting during the Casey/Gates years undermined the agency's ability to produce quality intelligence long after the end of their stewardship. In Goodman's analysis in Failure of Intelligence, the legacy of the Casey/Gates era is evident in the politicization of information that took place in the build up to the invasion of Iraq.
"The bias built into CIA reporting during the Casey/Gates years undermined the agency's ability to produce quality intelligence long after the end of their stewardship."Then there is the question of Gates' participation in the funneling of arms to Saddam Hussein in the 1980's and his role in the Iran-Contra affair. Gates was nominated to the position of CIA director in 1987 and again in1991. He withdrew his candidacy in 1987 because it was clear, according to Goodman, that many senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee thought Gates lied when he disclaimed knowledge of the Iran-Contra matter. Owing to his senior position in the CIA, Gates was close to many of the officials who were involved in the secretive arms dealings and could not have been unaware of the operation or that it was intended to get around Congressional interdictions.
In 1991 a record number of senators were opposed to his nomination, but Gates essentially squeaked through the confirmation process and was appointed to director of the CIA. However, lingering questions remain about the exact nature of his Iran-Contra entanglement.
Documentary evidence on the Iran/Contra link continued to emerge even subsequent to Gates' leaving the CIA. The paper trail has been followed by investigative journalist Parry and described in a Nov. 9, 2006, article "The Secret World of Robert Gates." In a Nov. 9, 2006, interview on Democracy Now!, Parry posed the following question: Did Gates lie to Congress when he denied being involved in these matters?
Such are the credentials of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose defenders cite his deep involvement in world affairs. Unfortunately the ethics of the Defense Secretary's interventions in international affairs are questionable to say the least.
"There is the question of Gates' participation in the funneling of arms to Saddam Hussein in the 1980's and his role in the Iran-Contra affair."
Just ask the Afghans who protested what could be 100 civilian deaths caused in May 2009 by American bombs. Or ask those who are even now mourning the innocents, eight of them schoolchildren, who were executed in a night raid conducted by American-led troops. Ask what they think of Secretary Gates' long and illustrious career.
Gates has been charged with spinning intelligence and/or lying to Congress by who have followed the convoluted ramifications of his career. Such dereliction of duty is non-trivial and should not have been swept under the carpet.
The most remarkable thing about the career of the Defense Secretary is his success in evading accountability and gaining credence for his version of his political career. IU made a substantial contribution to this noble endeavor by honoring Secretary Gates at its winter commencement.
Radha Surya can be reached at email@example.com.