Bob Gates Doesn't Know Much About History

The former secretary of defense thinks this is the first time politics played a role in foreign policy? Please.

Readers of Foreign Policy might be dimly aware that former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates published a memoir this week. Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War offers lots of grimy details about Gates's time serving both George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations (there's also some good stuff in there about a few foreign leaders). In both the excerpts and Gates's publicity interviews this past week, he has expressed his central thesis loud and clear: The crafting of American foreign policy has changed, and not for the better. When Gates first came to Washington, politics was kept segmented from policy. During his term as secretary of defense, however, Gates found himself increasingly disgusted with Joe Biden the ways that partisan politics and blinkered strategic thinking affected policymaking.

As many observers have pointed out, it's a bit rich for Gates to decry the role that politics plays in policymaking in a tell-all memoir published before his last boss has left office. It seems likely that the principal debate inside the Beltway will be about the ethics of Gates writing his tell-all so soon after leaving office. This would be a shame, however, because it would elide the bigger flaw in Gates's worldview: his appalling understanding of the history of American foreign policy. If Gates thinks that the insertion of politics into foreign policy is a recent phenomenon, he needs to do his homework. It used to be worse -- a hell of a lot worse.

The kerfuffle over Gates's memoir started as I was knee-deep into Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days, an absorbing chronicle of the fierce debates between isolationists and internationalists between the start of World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. Through the fog of history, that period is now seen as a hotly contested battle between the forces of reason, who correctly perceived the rising threat of fascism, and the forces of ignorance, who saw no reason to get involved in overseas wars.

As Olson illuminates, the truth is far seamier. To be sure, the isolationist camp was perfectly willing to play a nasty, brutish sort of politics. Isolationist members of Congress spearheaded hearings about whether Hollywood was inserting subtly pro-British messages into popular films. Prominent members of the America First group played on anti-British and anti-Semitic sentiment in the heartland to pressure Washington into staying out of Europe. At the same time, high-ranking anti-British members of the U.S. military actively leaked to isolationist columnists and congressmen in an attempt to thwart Lend-Lease and other forms of military aid to Britain. Indeed, in early December 1941, the Chicago Tribune and Washington Times-Herald published a bombshell story, detailing top-secret strategic military plans should the United States enter World War II. The story roiled D.C. for several days until the Dec. 7 Pearl Harbor attack mooted the debate. Montana Sen. Burton Wheeler, a prominent isolationist, later acknowledged that he was the source of the leak, but Olson argues that Army Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold most likely gave the plans to Wheeler. Why? Arnold was upset that the proposed strategy minimized the role of his beloved air force.

The internationalist camp, however, played politics even more fiercely. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his surrogates repeatedly accused isolationists of being part of a "fifth column" of Nazi sympathizers sent from Germany to weaken the United States. Roosevelt went beyond such rhetoric to combat his political adversaries. He formed an alliance with FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who had already engaged in the widespread surveillance of nativist groups. By 1939, the Justice Department knew that the FBI had "identifying data" on more than 10 million people. This included wiretaps that persisted despite a congressional ban on the practice and a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the ban. The FBI developed detailed dossiers on prominent isolationist opponents of FDR, including Wheeler and the aviator and social activist Charles Lindbergh. After a May 1940 foreign-policy address to Congress that generated critical telegrams, FDR ordered Hoover to look into the backgrounds of every individual who sent one.

Ironically, Roosevelt was obsessed about fifth columns at the same time that Prime Minister Winston Churchill established a British Security Coordination (BSC) group in the United States. The BSC -- with the blessing of FDR and Hoover -- was created to strengthen the internationalist camp and weaken the isolationists. According to Olson, "[BSC] planted propaganda in American newspapers, spied on isolationist groups, dug up political dirt on isolationists in Congress, and forged documents that, when brought to public attention, helped foment anti-Nazi sentiment."

The most political actor during this entire period was, of course, Roosevelt. Burned by his disastrous court-packing efforts and haunted by President Woodrow Wilson's fall from grace after World War I, Roosevelt followed rather than led the American public on arming for war. Increasingly, the public generally supported Roosevelt's internationalist bent -- indeed, his 1940 Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie, won the nomination largely because his internationalism resonated far better than traditional Republican isolationism. Despite public support, however, FDR moved slowly to aid Britain and bolster America's armed forces. Roosevelt's tendency of announcing such policies without implementing them drove Churchill crazy -- not to mention his own defense establishment.

Despite a far nastier strain of politics 70 years ago, both FDR and the United States eventually adopted the correct policies. Similarly, Gates acknowledges in his memoirs that despite the role that politics played, Obama likewise made the right foreign-policy calls. What seems to offend the former secretary of defense is the idea that politics played any role in foreign-policy decision-making.

Which, if you think about it, is insane. Foreign policy and national security are inherently political bailiwicks. It is increasingly difficult for presidents to launch major foreign-policy initiatives without a modicum of popular and congressional support. To accuse the Obama administration of factoring in the political is to accuse it of not committing political malpractice. In retrospect, had Bush and his advisor Karl Rove factored politics into their National Security Strategy, maybe it would not have been so unsustainable.

I have no doubt that Gates thinks of himself as having been beyond the political fray, crafting policy decisions like a Platonic guardian surrounded by a sea of political pack rats. As an ex-cabinet member who has left the political stage, he's entitled to that opinion. But he's not allowed to pretend that it's worse now than it used to be.

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Keeping It Central

From health care to education, what the United States can learn from poorer countries.

Humility is a wonderful thing, because it lets you learn. It's also not one of the traditional traits of the United States. Every year, we tell other countries what they should do in terms of national security, economic policy, and even social norms. But what would happen if we tried learning from them?

We might have a much stronger nation. By some basic yardsticks of human development, the United States is not living up to its global reputation and economic might. To equip today's Americans for success tomorrow, here are some areas where the performance of poorer countries suggests we could improve.

Health. What do Chile, Costa Rica, and Cuba have in common? They're not just Latin American countries that start with C -- they're all countries with higher life expectancies than the United States. It's well known that the United States lags behind wealthy countries in Europe and East Asia in this area, but several countries with far less money to spend on health also outperform us. 

Even Sri Lanka, which spends about $100 per person annually on health care between the public and private sectors, managed 99 percent vaccination rates for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTP), hepatitis B, bacillus, measles, and polio in 2012. The United States, which spends close to $9,000 on health care per capita, clocked rates of 95, 92, 90, 92, and 93 percent, respectively, which was mostly an improvement over 2011.

How is this possible? In Sri Lanka, the public health system is at once centralized and far-reaching. In the United States, access to health care depends on location, income, and myriad other factors.

The resulting infant mortality among American children, which was worse than in 11 former Soviet bloc countries, has not been the nation's only health problem. Reducing deaths of children under 5 to zero would still have left the United States with a life expectancy lower than Chile's and Costa Rica's.

No, at almost any age, Americans are less healthy.

Relative to poorer countries, we eat far more fatty food -- well, we eat far more, period. We also pay more for the same health care goods and services, in part because doctors have an incentive to prescribe the costliest ones and patients have little incentive not to accept them. We don't even allow the government to buy products in bulk for Medicare and Medicaid. Think any of that might matter?

Education. It's not news that the United States lags far behind many European and East Asian countries in reading, math, and science. It is news, however, that the list of those countries now includes Vietnam. Don't feel too bad -- the Vietnamese, with their strong educational tradition, outscored quite a few rich countries on the most recent tests through the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). And the tests cater to students trained by rote memorization, which doesn't necessarily augur for future success as innovators and entrepreneurs.

But then again, Poland -- which has an educational system more similar to ours -- also finished high above the United States, spending about the same percentage of GDP on education, and thus far less per pupil. That said, spending per pupil varies widely across the United States. Adjusted for local prices, Vermont spends more than twice as much per public school student as California.

What can we learn from Poland? Sometimes it's the simple things, like a uniform curriculum that mandates 18 classes a week of math and science for all students in grades 10 through 12, a greater emphasis on preparation for college, and a national shift away from vocational education. Centralized curriculums can save money through economies of scale in teaching materials and training, too.

Child welfare. American kids are better off than kids in the poorest countries, but not necessarily better off than kids in all poor countries. The problems occur from the start. Babies are more likely to enter the world with low birth weight in the United States than in Rwanda. The gross rate of enrollment in early childhood education (pupils of all ages divided by the population of children of statutory school age) stood at just 73 percent in the United States in 2011, lower than in dozens of other countries. Ghana manages 114 percent enrollment, Thailand 110 percent, Mexico 99 percent, and Suriname 88 percent. (Because children outside statutory ages can enroll, the gross figure can rise above 100 percent.) And all the way through to early adulthood, youths may face a higher homicide rate in the United States than in many poorer countries, especially in Asia.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly cultural. But the devolution of responsibility for the protection of children to the states may also play a role. Roughly one-quarter or more of children live in poverty in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and the District of Columbia. Poor states, states with major cities in decay, and states with especially tight budgets tend to have the highest homicide rates -- and almost all of the ones in the list above are among them.

There's a common theme here. When national priorities aren't actually taken care of at the national level, two things happen: First, some states lag behind others, and second, people in the leading states, where everything seems fine, don't particularly worry about the laggards. But when everyone is taken care of at the national level -- as in, say, Medicare -- this disjoint can't happen so easily. Standards are uniform and so, to a much greater degree than in state-managed systems like Medicaid, is funding. Most importantly, if the quality of service is lousy, even people in rich states will complain. Medicare is decent precisely because everyone gets it.

In many poorer countries, standards and funding for health, education, and child welfare are, like Medicare, the responsibility of the national government. Our system, by contrast, places much of the burden for these crucial contributors to well-being on the states. Some states just can't hack it, and so the data make our nation look like a developing economy. But as the people of many developing economies know, centralization of strategy, standards, and funding is one of the best ways to move forward.

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