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The Essential Gates: Looking Back At His Latin America Policy – Analysis


By Parker Wright


Robert Gates’ distinguished career merits attention as he retires to private life after nearly thirty years of service in Washington’s most secretive intelligence circles. Gates, who served as the head of the CIA in the late 1980s and early 1990s, later became the U.S. Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Gates’ tenure as defense secretary will naturally be remembered for stewarding U.S. forces through arguably one of the nation’s most controversial periods of foreign conflict. His career included the decade following 9/11, two full-scale wars in Iraq,a devastating conflict in Afghanistan, and the recent limited strike attacks in Libya. Considering this climate, relations with Latin America were far from the top of Gates’ priorities. Nevertheless, as a statesman with Cold War-era training and experience, Gates certainly recognized the strategic importance of the region and actively maintained a degree of focus on Latin America throughout his career, focusing particular attention on hemispheric security and combating the region’s growing drug trade.

Observing Gates’ Career

Gates serves as a transformative figure in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, in assessing Gates’ tenure as defense secretary, found that, “In Washington, it’s no longer considered a sin to question American omnipotence. [Gates’] most enduring legacy is likely to be found in his willingness, however belated, to acknowledge the limits of American power.”1 Much like Donald Rumsfeld, Gates typically relied on the U.S.’ alliances, instead of acting unilaterally in matters of foreign policy. This strategy was apparent in the Middle East and Latin America; Gates decided to partner with the Mexican and Colombian governments to combat violence in the drug nexus linking Colombia and Mexico with the U.S. market. Yet the lasting lesson Gates will hopefully leave in Washington is that military might is hollow if not combined with sound diplomacy and pragmatism. The U.S. may possess the most advanced weaponry, bases in every corner of the planet, and highly skilled volunteer forces, but if these strengths are not combined with sound tactical decisions emanating from the highest points of command, this country will face unnecessarily grave consequences. This reservation came to fruition as a product of the rash, foolish decision to invade Iraq in 2003. If the U.S. is governed by the ideological principles of neo-conservatism, the country’s global standing could be in peril.

Gates will be missed in Washington for the rational manner with which he advised the administrations of Ronald Reagan, both the elder and younger George Bush, and Barack Obama. The Los Angeles Times describes Gates as, “a pragmatic, independent, non-ideological voice of reason, by all appearances driven less by self-promotion than by concern for the national interest and the common good.”2 Instances of his independent manner of thinking include his support for the abolition of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which banned openly gay Americans from serving in the armed forces.3 Gates, a Republican, was not afraid to break from the members of his party who were pandering to the socially conservative Republican base. On the other hand, Gates expressed reservations about the current mission in Libya, disagreeing with President Obama on the grounds that American forces were already overstretched as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.4

However, Gates was not a diplomatic angel. Gates emerged from the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s relatively unscathed, though he most likely was privy to knowledge that weapon sales to Iran funded the anti-communist Nicaraguan rebel group, the Sandinistas. At the time, Gates served as the Central Intelligence Agency’s deputy director of intelligence, essentially making him the second most informed intelligence official in the U.S. Suspicion that Gates had knowledge of these intelligence cover-ups prevented him from receiving Reagan’s nomination for Director of the CIA in 1987.5 However, Gates was later exculpated and succeeded in securing the position under George H.W. Bush in 1991.6

Gates responds to a question during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on December 5, 2006
Gates responds to a question during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on December 5, 2006

His foreign policy ideals were formulated with the Cold War at fever pitch; before becoming Defense Secretary, Gates was perhaps best known for being “hotheaded and impulsive,” as an extreme hardliner against communism. Notably, he advocated conducting air strikes against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in 1984.7 However, Gates admitted to later mellowing with age. Understandably, the mental anguish of dealing with two and a half simultaneous wars became a factor, as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya began to wear on him.8 As Secretary, Gates moderated his views on the military as the American soldier death totals began to mount. In particular, he became increasingly disheartened after seeing the results of what he perceived as the U.S.’ “wars of choice” particularly in Iraq over the past decade: “I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice…I hope I’ve prevented us from doing some dumb things over the past 4 ½ years.”9 However, it took several decades for Gates to moderate his views to this point.


Under the guise of thwarting communism, Gates advocated an interventionist policy in Nicaragua. This was similar to the traditional Cold War strategy of containment employed by the U.S. under George Kennan in the 1950s to curb the potential encroachment of left-wing regimes in the Western Hemisphere.. Kennan laid the foundation of what was later known as the “Reagan Doctrine,” which consisted of a program of “aid to anti-Soviet insurgencies in the Third World in their attempts to overthrow Marxist regimes.”1

During this time, Latin America was a major concern for U.S. policymakers and intelligence officials, as Washington viewed the relatively poor region as fertile ground for t leftist sentiments. However, the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua was marked by pitfalls from the start. Gates recalled years later that there was, “no agreement within the administration…on our real objectives.”11 Little unanimity could be found among Reagan’s advisers on the National Security Council; some favored “rollback,” a complete overthrow of the leftist Sandinista government, while others preferred “containment,” the practice of simply preventing the spread of a political ideology to neighboring countries. The Reagan administration eventually settled for a fusion of sorts between the two strategies, opting to provide backchannel aid to the Contras through the third-party sale of weapons to Iran. By illicitly funding the Contras, the administration cleverly circumvented the cumbersome War Powers Resolution, which was designed to curb the executive branch’s power to sustain armed conflict without congressional approval.

Gates and other members of Reagan’s national security team tried to paint Nicaragua to Congress and the American public as a breeding ground for Marxist sympathies and a hemispheric launching point for communism that would quickly subsume Central America. Gates and his counterparts primarily based their intelligence decisions on piecemeal evidence, and his Contra plotting represents a major blot on Gates’ good name. The Sandinista revolutionaries may have professed a fondness for the teachings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, but they viewed the overthrow of the corrupt Somoza dynasty and the unwanted intrusion of U.S. Cold War plots as their primary objectives.12

In the intelligence community, there was no doubt that Gates was one of those most staunchly opposed to the left-wing regime in Nicaragua. In a 1984 memorandum written to then-CIA director William J. Casey, Gates exaggerated claims that the Sandinista government had been receiving financial support and weaponry from Moscow and Havana.13 In light of the prevailing “Vietnam Syndrome,” presidents and intelligence officials were reluctant to propose armed intervention to an already skeptical public and Congress. Therefore, Gates recommended various rogue plots to Casey, that fell just short of war to drive the Sandinista regime out of power. His four major suggestions consisted of: withdrawing diplomatic recognition of the Nicaraguan government; providing protection for the exiled government; placing economic sanctions on Nicaragua; and deploying air strikes. This last suggestion would be “accompanied by an announcement that the United States did not intend to invade Nicaragua but that no more arms deliveries of such weapons would be permitted.”14 This defiant stance against communism and the rise of leftist regimes provides a glimpse of Gates’ Latin American policy in the earlier phases of his CIA career.

More than twenty years later, Defense Secretary Gates again found time for Latin America. Gates was a primary architect of a bilateral defense agreement between the U.S. and Brazil, the Western Hemisphere’s two largest democracies.15 The purpose of this agreement was to find a common ground upon which to build closer relations between Washington and Brasilia, while simultaneously thwarting the perceived growing influence of Russia and Iran in Latin America. Gates, President Obama and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had several points of disagreement. Lula, for example, refused to recognize Roberto Micheletti’s coup that overthrew the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.16 Another instance of discord occurred when Lula refused to condemn Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapon research and development, much to the chagrin of Washington; yet despite these political disagreements, Gates succeeded in fostering a spirit of cooperation between the hemisphere’s preeminent power and its nascent power, an example of the more moderate, less authoritative philosophy he espoused later in his career.17 The agreement also created an incentive for Brazil’s Air Force to “buy American,” as Boeing had been fervently competing with the French company Dassault and Swedish firm Saab to sell 36 fighter jets to Brazil.18 President Dilma Rousseff has expressed her personal preference for Boeing’s F-18 fighter plane, a purchase which, if consummated, would signify a major feather in the cap of Boeing,the U.S. defense industry, and Gates’ goal of hemispheric security cooperation.19

As Secretary, Gates became concerned by seemingly cozy relations between Latin America, Iran, and Russia. A particularly nerve-wracking moment for Gates and the administration occurred in 2009, when Moscow agreed to lend USD 2.2 billion to Venezuela for Caracas to update its defense capabilities. The purpose of the loan was for Venezuela to purchase 92 Russian-produced T-72 tanks along with an S-300 anti-aircraft rocket system.20 This transaction raised a red flag because a mobilized Venezuela could have negative effects for its neighbor Colombia, arguably Washington’s closest ally in South America. The Venezuelan purchase was likely predicated on the establishment of U.S. forces at several military bases in Colombia, creating a standoff between Colombia and Venezuela. In fact, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez stated emphatically that he purchased the missile defense system in order to deter the U.S. from attacking Venezuela; Chávez has been concerned for both his personal prospects as well as his nation’s future in light of several assassination and coup attempts upon him.21

The Pentagon wanted to establish a military presence in Colombia in order to attack the drug trade at its source. Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, a loyal servitor of U.S. foreign policy, was eager for Washington to place forces in Colombian military bases. Upon discovering this plan, Chávez derided the U.S.-Colombia partnership, declaring that it threatened hemispheric security and reeked of neo-colonialism.22 Gates demonstrated here a penchant for using force to expand the U.S. military’s role in diplomacy. It is important to note, however, that amplification of force was not necessarily characteristic of Gates’ tenure; depending on the circumstances, he was open to either escalation or diminution of troop levels. For example, he advocated the now-famous troop surge in Iraq while later opposing major U.S. involvement in the Libyan conflict.

Gates’ tenure as defense secretary saw the consolidation of several left-of-center governments throughout the region. Governments in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Perú and notably Nicaragua have dramatically altered the political climate of Latin America. These regimes have made the region much more economically viable and more autonomous from the United States than when Gates first came to power in the CIA. This could partially be a result of the U.S. focusing its foreign policy aims elsewhere, specifically toward the Middle East and Central Asia, but Gates’ tenure should be remembered as a period of tremendous growth and success for Latin America’s political and economic sectors. This might have been the result of relatively little interference from Washington in recent years, as lately Latin America has been allowed to break out from under the yoke of Washington and become more self-determining. For this, from the perspective of Latin America, Gates can be remembered fondly for granting the region greater autonomy to shape its future, solidify democratic institutions, and make tangible social and economic progress.

References for this article can be found here.


COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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