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Thursday, January 01, 2015

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M Gates | LibraryThing

I used to like Robert Gates. I realize that memoirs, (I have also read Robert McNamara’s mea culpa In Retrospect - which I highly recommend) by their very nature, tend to be self-adulatory, but there are passages that encouraged self-emetic tendencies in me. The idea that he left Texas A&M as president, where he describes himself as being overwhelmingly loved by students and faculty after only four years, to return to government as Secretary of Defense only out of a sense of duty? Really? In 2005 he had turned down a request to become Director of National Intelligence. I suspect his nostalgia for the university had as much to do with his greater control there than he was able to forge in government.

He calls names, disrespecting many others in government. While those others may have been bimbos, time will tell if it’s not a case of the pot calling the kettle black. It’s really easy to become enamored of oneself when most of the time is spent looking in the mirror. He blames Obama for lousy policy with regard Afghanistan but doesn’t dwell on what he did to try to influence that policy in a different direction. Clearly he loathes Congress considering most of them political hacks who aren’t interested in the “facts.” The book is filled with righteous anger, bile, even.

One of the most telling comments, I thought, came early in the book. He and several others had gone to Iraq as part of the Iraq Study Group (he considers his membership in that group one of the reasons why Bush 43 wanted him as Defense Secretary) when he asked one of the top-ranking military people how things were going with the CIA as far as cooperation. The reply was telling: “ “Oh, sir, it’s so much better than when you were DCI.” I was not offended because what he said was true and, in fact, a vast understatement. The close and growing collaboration, in fact, was bringing about a revolution in the real-time integration of intelligence and military operations.” Now I would have expected some deeper introspection as to why his successor was succeeding where he had obviously failed. I’m sure he included that little anecdote to show how honest he could be, yet to me it showed a complete failure to recognize his own limitations. Belittling his colleagues struck me as a similar failure. 

It seems to me that much of his complaints result from a pettiness that not everyone hopped on board with his strategies. He makes much of the “Megan” letter (with “[sics]” inserted lest you think he made the mistakes) yet ignores her advice and goes for the fifteen-month deployment change to support the surge anyway. And I totally disliked his assumptions that one could not be supportive of the troops if one didn’t support the mission. “The frequently used line “We support the troops” coupled with “We totally disagree with their mission” cut no ice with people in uniform. Our kids on the front lines were savvy; they would ask me why the politicians didn’t understand that, in the eyes of the troops, support for them and support for their mission were tied together.” Hogwash. Sometimes the best way to support the troops is precisely by opposing the mission.

He makes a big point early on that his parents considered lying a major offense, yet Gates was apparently a very effective SofD by getting along with Congress and Congressional leaders all the while considering them miserable sons of bitches. Perhaps Rumsfeld, who made enemy of Congress and the press was just being more honest. Obama comes off rather well, but largely because he acceded to the positions of Clinton and the Joint Chiefs as well as Gates. According to Gates (and is he credible here?) where they did differ, Gates adopted more dovish positions out of concern for the troops welfare. But many of his anecdotes displaying his concern for the troops came from personal exposure to grieving relatives or combat deaths. Hed portrays himself as the antithesis to Cheney who argued for the military option at every crisis (he wanted to bomb both Syria and Iran before leaving office) while he (Gates) tried to consider that as the last option. I was surprised at the level of discord within the military and the lack of support from Republicans in Congress, having assumed opposition for the surge and slow progress in the drawdown was coming primarily from Democrats in 2007. I was also taken aback by the level of discord within the military itself and disagreement on how things were going. (See the “Fox” Fallon episode on page 68.)

Gates is generally kind to Obama considering his decision to go after Bin Laden “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed at the White House.” (And he worked for eight presidents.) He was disturbed by Obama’s mistrust of the generals, believeing they were trying to box him into sending more troops. Yet Gates’ department fueled much of that distrust and he says as much on page 476: “We at Defense certainly at times contributed to White House suspicions.” He accuses Obama of politicizing military decisions, yet in the same breath notes how Obama would over and over go against the political recommendations of his advisors.

A problem I saw with Gates’ tenure at Defense was that while he was very good at identifying problems, he personalized the fixes, i.e., took personal responsibility for going around the bureaucracy rather than reforming the bureaucracy to make it more responsive and accountable. That meant that after he left, everything reverted to the status quo.

One of the most telling observations about Gates was made by Fred Kaplan of Slate. Given Gates’ rise through the ranks of the CIA and the intelligence community, “He knew how to insinuate his views into a discussion without leaving fingerprints behind, and he could calmly toss obstructionists overboard if necessary.”

Gates by all lights, Gates was a very good SofD. He managed to get Congress to go along with cutting many major weapons systems but forced through $16 billion for MRAP troop carrier that was hardened against IEDs and saved many lives. And you have to respect his compassion for the kids he was sending off to war. No doubt he made a difference in many of their lives and he writes with great compassion about the suffering of those left permanently scarred and wounded by the war. The way he handled the Washington Post story about the terrible conditions at Walter Reed was more than commendable.

But here we are ten years later facing virtually the same problems. Gates never considers that he might have been wrong about some things, preferring to ridicule his opponents, in particular Joe Biden who argued for a smaller counter insurgency force. More than 3,800 soldiers and Marines died on Gates’s watch in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps Gates owes us an explanation. But he’s burned his bridges.

One last irony. Gates writes dismissively (pages 392-3) of Obama’s comments after they had discussed what to do if Israel attacked Iran:

I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting. To his closest advisers, he said, “For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decision about Israel or Iran. Joe, you be my witness.” I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.

Barely a few months later guess who’s writing his memoirs? Nevertheless, an important book. I am not doing it justice.Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M Gates | LibraryThing:  One is left wondering at the end of the book whether government can exist with such confusion in goals and people often working at cross-purposes.  It must be horribly dispiriting as President to realize how little you can actually influence government.

N.B. One astonishing little tidbit. It cost Gates $40,000 for a law firm to complete the financial disclosure and national security documents required of every incoming appointee. That’s crazy.

As a companion piece, I highly recommend James Fallows recent piece in the Atlantic, “The Tragedy of the American Military, Jan/Feb, 2015” as well as several of the responses to his article. In particular, Chickenhawk Nation, Response No. 4: 'Actually, Our Military Keeps Winning' Here’s a quote: “ The more the military is isolated from our society and its political limitations, the more it can harbor this view. Likewise, the more the military is placed on a pedestal, the more its confusion of tactical military success with political victory will go unchallenged by our political system, and likely shift to reluctance to criticize the political leadership’s war goals and means.”

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