Every so often I visit the family crypt of the Wittelsbacher dynasty in Munich’s Frauenkirche, to make sure that the former kings of Bavaria are still there. They give every appearance of being dead, but deceased undesirables have a way of showing up at inconvenient moments – for example, former US secretary of state James Baker III. Like King Saul conjuring the spirit of the prophet Samuel, President George W. Bush has conjured the undead of his father’s administration, namely the Baker-Hamilton “Iraq Study Group.” Samuel’s ghost told Saul in effect (I Samuel 28), “You’re toast,” and the unfortunate president will hear the same message from his new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and the rest of his fellow spooks.
The sina qua non of a ghost is that it is condemned for eternity to reenact the delinquencies of its past life. That is just what we should expect from Robert Gates. As chief of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Soviet desk during the early 1980s, Gates shared the consensus academic view that the Soviet economy was strong and stable. A prosperous Russia, he reckoned, would respond rationally to management by carrot and stick. Fortunately for the United States, then-CIA director William Casey recruited outsiders such as journalist Herbert E. Meyer, and listened to them rather than to Gates. 
If the Soviet economy was crumbling, some leftist commentators object, what justified the Reagan administration’s military buildup of the 1980s? The answer is that a failing empire is far more likely to undertake dangerous adventures than a successful one. That was true of the Soviet Union, whose 1979 invasion of Afghanistan threatened US power at the moment of its greatest vulnerability. It is equally true today of Iran, which faces demographic implosion and economic ruin during the next generation.
Baker, Gates and their Iraq Study Group will report to President Bush next week. Judging from press leaks and the public record, they will propose a ghastly misevaluation of Iran, identical in character to their misevaluation of the Soviet Union a generation ago. As widely reported, they will propose to “engage Iran”; but for what object should Iran be engaged?
Iran can be persuaded to abandon nuclear-weapons development if it feels secure against external threats, according to a Council on Foreign Relations study that Gates co-authored in 2004 with former president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. 
Never mind that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the only country to threaten Iran’s borders in a generation, has been neutralized. Gates and Brzezinski insist, “Given its history and its turbulent neighborhood, Iran’s nuclear ambitions do not reflect a wholly irrational set of strategic calculations.” The clerical regime believes it requires nuclear weapons, Gates-Brzezinski insist, because of the threat from the United States. Here is the key paragraph of the 2004 document:
The elimination of Saddam Hussein’s regime has unequivocally mitigated one of Iran’s most serious security concerns. Yet regime change in Iraq has left Tehran with potential chaos along its vulnerable western borders, as well as with an ever more proximate US capability for projecting power in the region. By contributing to heightened tensions between the Bush administration and Iran, the elimination of Saddam’s rule has not yet generated substantial strategic dividends for Tehran. In fact, together with US statements on regime change, rogue states, and preemptive action, recent changes in the regional balance of power have only enhanced the potential deterrent value of a “strategic weapon.” 
In other words, the Bush administration’s threats against Tehran are not a response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but rather the cause of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, according to the sages of the Carter and the Bush Sr administrations. It is a peculiarly self-referential argument, but not a new one, for that is just how the “realists” viewed the Soviet Union in 1981.
It is true that Iranian policy is rational. It is silly to allege that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad makes policy on the premise that the imminent reappearance of the 12th Imam will bring about the end of the world as we know it. Iran’s policy is quite rational, but in a very different way than Gates and Brzezinski imagine: facing prospective ruin, it wants to conquer the entire oil belt of the Middle East, from Azerbaijan to the northwest coast of Saudi Arabia. I explained why in Demographics and Iran’s imperial design (September 13, 2005).
As noted, the Soviet section of the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence failed miserably in its mission during the Cold War when Gates was in charge. Why the man ever had another job offer speaks volumes about the character of bureaucracies. The Soviet Empire of 1979-82 was all the more dangerous for its infirmity. If Russia had succeeded in breaking Europe’s political will and harnessing European industry to its own decrepit industrial machine, the communist economy might have managed its problems quite well. That was the thrust of Russian policy, which sought to intimidate the Germans into the status of vassal state.
Few who were not participants know how close the United States came to losing the Cold War. The point-spread for victory in the Cold War strongly favored the Soviet Union in European salons. President Ronald Reagan’s core group of advisers – Alexander Haig, William Casey, Richard Allen and William Clark – believed that one side or another would achieve victory during the 1980s. Either the Soviet Union would intimidate America’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and emerge stronger, or the Soviet Union would collapse by the end of the decade. Ultimately America’s ability to mount a huge military buildup while the civilian economy prospered was the decisive fact.
The 1980s presented an unstable world in which the illusionary equilibrium of the Cold War would come to a crashing end. But that is not how Gates saw it. The US academic consensus, as well as the Foreign Service and intelligence community, could not imagine such a grand rupture of stability. They projected their own desire for stability – the stability of career and social status – on to the world around them, with potentially disastrous results. They swam in the fishbowl of incremental change and petty tradeoffs. Confronted with evidence that great events and challenges lay before the United States, they could not read the writing on the wall, and refused to believe it once the characters were interpreted for them.
Why can’t the “realists” make sense of reality, even when it clamps its jaws firmly upon their posteriors? Why is it that the king’s magicians never seem to be able to read the fiery script on the wall? Belshazzar’s magi could not read the words “Mene, mene, tekel, uparsin”; the king of Babylon had to call in an outside consultant, namely Daniel. By then it was too late.
The answer to the conundrum is that knowledge is existential. That is, we cannot easily imagine a world in which we will not exist because the world has no use for us. Self-styled power brokers of the James Baker ilk have no place in the world when power asserts itself in its naked form and there is nothing more to broker. The realists fancy themselves the general managers in a world of hierarchy, status and security. Replace these with insecurity and chaos, and there no longer is any need for such people.
Reading the confidential correspondence of Europe’s leaders just before World War I, one observes that Franz Joseph of Austria, Wilhelm II of Germany, and Nicholas II of Russia could not conceive of the calamity about to befall them. On the eve of mobilization, they remained blind and deaf to the dangers at their doorstep (Why war comes when no one wants it, May 1, 2006). They evinced not stupidity – for they were clever and cultured men – but rather hysteria. The world shortly was to have no use for them, and it was beyond their capacity to imagine a world in which they did not exist. Rene Descartes was misguided to write, “I think, therefore I am.” Most of us do not require a logical proof of our own existence; those who do require it have little interest in logic. More relevant is the converse: “I am, therefore I am willing to think.” Past the limits of our potential existence, thought will not carry us.
The ghosts of defunct European monarchies mingle with the shades of failed policy in Washington. Who you gonna call? Not the neo-conservatives, whose effort to turn the sow’s ear of Middle Eastern politics into the silk purse of democracy has not a shred of credibility remaining. The Reagan administration did not win the Cold War by proposing regime change in Moscow, but by humiliating Russian power to the point that its will to fight evaporated. There is no one to interpret the fiery letters on the wall. For the past five years I have counseled the United States to learn to live with the chaos that it can do nothing to prevent. No matter: Americans will learn, late and at cost, the way they always do.
1. For the CIA’s account of the debate over the Soviet economy, click here.
2. Iran: Time for a New Approach (pdf file).
3. Ibid, p 23.