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Dutiful UPDATE

Robert Gates memoir, Duty, has gotten a rough reception in the media. But considering his view of the media, and of Congress, and of Obama staff, that should be no surprise. That's why Tom Rick's opening paragraph in his front-page review at the NYT Books is refreshing with just the right splash of vinegar.

"As I was reading “Duty,” probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever, I kept thinking that Robert M. Gates clearly has no desire to work in the federal government again in his life. That evidently is a fertile frame of mind in which to write a book like this one."

Duty seems to be the story of a dutiful guy who has served, it says, eight administrations and went to the Department of Defense in the nadir of the Iraq war. I am a few chapters in and what I find is instructive so far:

1. Congressmen/women say one thing in private and another in public. They all want to cut military budgets but not in their home districts.

2. Gates says nothing about his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, but his effort to get the DOD working together suggests that Rumsfeld may have left it an armed camp, especially between civilians and military.

3. Gates is kind to Bush 43, leading me to wonder if he went to DOD as a favor to Bush 41, who wanted to pull his son out of a horrible mess.

4. Hillary Clinton has a sense of humor; good for her after all the ups and downs.

UPDATE  1/19   The most intriguing chapter so far is "Waging War on the Pentagon" (curious that his attacks on the media, Congress, and Obama staff are what has been written about most widely ). His attack on the Department of Defense, military and civilian both, is vigorous and detailed. Here's the topic sentence (p. 116): "The Department of Defense is structured to plan and prepare for war but not to fight one." He goes into great detail on how and where it was not fighting the wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) the U.S. was in (and losing), but preparing for future wars. The chapter should be an eye-opener for both defenders and critics of the wars.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Megyn Kelly interviewed Gen. Wesley Clark, a Democrat, on Fox News about Robert Gates's memoir.

She read aloud one statement that Gates makes about President Obama that she finds troubling and then grilled Gen. Clark about it.

Clark was really good in responding to her concerns.

I believe she interviewed him on Fox News on January 9, 2014. But I saw the clip of her interview at a later date on the Internet. I recommend viewing that clip to anyone who isinterested in Gates's book.

Here's the Kelly-Clark link.

Clark pushes back on Kelly's interpretation pretty vigoursly. Like others, Kelly probably hadn't read the book. Some intern flips through, picks out stuff, and the writer/producers do up the questions. I had the same impression of Judy Woodruff on the PBS Newshour: she had questions about a book she hadn't read. Gates was very  good; better than she. He was also very good and funny on The Daily Show (don't think John Stewart read the book either).

I have heard interviews and reviews, but not read the book. What is striking though and I assume confirmed in the book is that one factor influencing his resignation was his weeping nightly at writing (signing?) condolence letters to family members of those killed. This is, naturally, very moving. But I'm not sure what it says about the values in this war, the decision making that continues to send troops, the whole experience of "peacekeeping' (aka "making war"?), or how we want our civilian and military leaders to act. These seem like larger questions that are pondered anew.

It's just very hard for me to understand why the opinions of someone who still thinks well of Bush 43's foreign-policy record, and apparently still thinks the Iraq war was a good idea, are given so much respect, notwithstanding his length of service. 

It is not clear to me (one-third of the way thru the book) that Gates thinks highly of Bush 43 (or that he (Gates) thinks Iraq was a good idea. I think he was brought in to bring the war to a close as "honorably" as possible.

Did Gates join the administration at the behst of Bush 41 with whom he worked at the CIA and during 41's presidency? Bush 41 may have been fearful that Bush 43 was going to sink disastrously under the weight of Iraq gone wrong and convinced Gates to go to DOD (this is my theory, he doesn't say so in the book).

I could be wrong but I think Gates is a Republican in the mode of Bush 41, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, etc., and not in the mode of a Tea Partier or a neo-con. I don't get Gates' enthusiasm for Condolezza Rice, but he sees her as a smart, efficient and tough Secretary of State with whom he could work.

Is it giving Gates respect to read his book? Why? It is fascinating to read the opposite side of the page from the one I was on during the final years of the Bush Administration, which is as far as I've gotten.

I caught the interview on NPR. What struck me was the anguish of his decision to extend the tour of duty and his sense that suicide rates ticked upward. "Hard decisions," he cited to lengthen tours or make them more frequent.

Sometimes hard decisions are the ones off the table, out of the box. Like accelerating the end of fighting even if it means bucking the profiteers.

I haven't read the book yet.  But for those interested, The Wall Street Journal published this essay by Gates a week or two ago.  Apparently is it adapted from the book.  Headline: "The Quiet Fury of Robert Gates"


Ah, yes, preparing for war. That's when the military buys, buys, buys those super-expensive weapons.  And the wars they're used in?  That's not so important.

When are we going to start electing people who are concerned with our interests, not the interests of those who pay for campaigns?

Ann, there are two things Americans do not want to see in their leaders: an aversion to war and queasimess about the death penalty. If I give 0 to charity but am eager to execute felons, I will beat any opponent who tithes and waffles on the death penalty in any Florida primary or general election. Why would that be?

Unless Gates is a complete liar...I am impressed with the brakes he put on a number of Cheney-supported adventures during the last two years of the Bush Administration. The mis-steps of Gates's early career, especially Iran-Contra, seems to have sobered him up when it came to foreign adventures. Now reading in the last months of the Bush Administration when Gates expects to retire from the government once again. He seems to be fixed on tamping down Iraq and Afghanistan. I assume there is classified stuff than he cannot write about so I am reading with a tablespoon of salt. Still.....

Like others, I have read reviews but not the book.  Most of the reviews suggest that Gates is most of all impatient with how politicized many decisions are, for instance, the politicking over the "surge."  I feel for Gates, but the entire decision to invade Iraq was simply one big political calculation (or miscalculation, if you look at it in a longer time frame) without regard to the long term interests of the United States, in favor of the short term interests of George W. Bush, and I am actually encouraged by the fact that Gates found Democrats to be more interested in leaving than fighting the war that had emerged.  I only wish more of them, for instance, Hillary Clinton, had vigorously opposed it all along, right from the beginning.  Not all politicking is a form of vice.

Hillary Clinton on Iraq and Barack Obama on the NSA are good examples of some of the issues Gates raises in Duty. Whatever their considered views, neither Clinton/Obama thought/thinks they can afford to give the Republicans any grist for the mill. In Iraq, it was for Clinton seeming weak on terrorism though there was no evidence that Iraq was supporting terrorism or had WMD. In Obama's case reining in NSA, more than he has said he will, will give the Republicans the chance to say he doesn't care about another terrorist attack on the U.S.

I got the book.  I've read only a few pages but am alreacy impressed by the way Gates pays keen attention to the details of other people's behavior.  Does this indicate just a good, novelistic sort of historian?  Or does this indicate a keen empathy inspired by compassion? I also read the end of the book where he tells of his concern for the troops, which to me surely shows great compassion for them. Or is he just spinning an interesting yarn to cover his own sins?

I'd appreciate comments from others about whether or not he's trustable.  At any rate, he surely can write. 

Ann, Good to have a fellow reader. I am not reading the end until I get there! Just finishing up the Bush Administration and will move onto Obama and Co. Is Gates trustable? Good question. What are your criteria? He seems sincere, but that can't count for much on the trust score. Bush was probably sincere and not well informed.


Ms. S,,  

About his trustworthiness, I"m too ignorant to judge the facts, so I'll look for indications of bias and lying.   First I"ll ask: is he self-critical? If he is, then that indicates to me that he's honest. (Liars don't usually criticize themselves. Do they?)  Next I'd ask:  does he seem to take more credit than he deserves?  That 's  an indication of bias in self-evaluation if not outright lying.  And does he give due credit to people he doesn't like?  Do his criticisms of others seem too harsh, given the facts?  Is he well-known as a charmer?  I mean is he the sort of sociopath who knows how to manipulate others by telling them whata they (we) want to hear?  Are his main arguments based on what is not verifiable?  Does he use a lot of weasel words or does he talk in plain language?

Given the couple of dozen pages and some reviews I've read, he's looking sincere, even though he's full of contradictions.  FAscinating man.  Too bad he wasn't president, though he probably would have hated that job even more than being Secretary of Defense.


Re: Gates distincton between preparing for and fighting wars.

Well worth reading Andrew Bacevich's two most recent books, Breach of Trust and Wasington Rules. Bacevich has not been Secretary of Defense, but neither has Robert Gates been a combat infantry officer (and bereaved father of another).

Mark L.

Gates seems never to have served in combat, though the book is full of his encounters while SOD with combat units in Iraq and especially Afghanistan where he reports on outposts he visited and where he notes the memorials set up for fallen soldiers.

He was, however, in the Air Force after joining the CIA and served as an intelligence officer during the late '60s. The missing nuclear missles that flew from North Dakotak to Louisiana happened on his watch as SOD. He pursued the issue to the point of firing the secretary of the airforce and the commanding officer in charge. He's big on accountability at the highest levels.

Another theme in the book is the career ladders in the various military services. Which are dead ends and which not? Apparently after 1990 and the end of the Cold War, tending to the nuclear missle system and readiness ceased to be a way to get ahead in the Air Force. The most recent cheating scandal among those in charge of the missles seems to confirm Gates's observation about that problem. It's a boring job with no promise of promotion.

Would be interesting to have Bacevich review Duty.

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