Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Robert M. Gates
Knopf, $35, 618 pp.
Robert Gates leaves his readers without a shred of doubt: he respected, indeed loved, the men and women who served on the front lines in the two wars fought by the United States during his tenure as Secretary of Defense. His frequent trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, he writes, “took a heavy emotional toll.” Each one proved more difficult than the last. “As I looked into each face,” he says, “I increasingly would wonder to myself which of these kids I would next see in the hospital at Landstuhl or Walter Reed or Bethesda—or listed for burial at Arlington cemetery.” I have no reason to doubt Gates’s sincerity. Unlike many in his position—indeed strikingly unlike the bloodless Donald Rumsfeld, whom he replaced—Gates is clearly a man with a heart.
Not only that: Gates took upon himself this emotionally grueling task not for love of money or power but out of a sense of duty—the word he relies upon for the title of his memoirs. “I did not enjoy being secretary of defense,” he writes, and again there is little reason to be skeptical. Gates assumed his position at the age of sixty-three, when others might have been considering retirement, and left five years later, well past the age when he could have relied on his position to assure a high-paying or prestigious job somewhere else. (He has since assumed positions as President of the Boy Scouts of America and Chancellor of the College of William and Mary.) The only man to have served as secretary of defense under two presidents of different parties, he never displayed the one-sidedness necessary for political advancement in this hyperpartisan age. Those who write political memoirs tend to hide their ambition, claiming that only reluctantly and against the better judgment of friends and family were they called into the fray. Gates does his share of that, and, if truth be told, he is not always convincing. But if any public servant in recent years comes close to embodying the ideal of duty, it is he.
In Gates’s world, a willingness to sacrifice and a respect for duty stand in sharp contrast to that noisy, ugly, and short-sighted activity called politics. He cannot help but contrast the quiet resolve of the troops with “the self-promotion and selfishness of power-hungry politicians and others—in Baghdad, Kabul, and Washington,” all of whom made difficult the task of “maintaining my outward calm and discipline, and suppressing my anger and contempt for the many petty power players.” Memoirs offer opportunities to get even, and Gates, who avoided name-calling when in office, cannot resist letting the world know what he really thinks of the likes of Joe Biden, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Carl Levin, and the two presidents under whom he served. No longer repressing his anger and contempt, he offers a form of titillation unusual in political memoirs. Inside the beltway, where journalists care more for personalities than policy, Gates’s candidness has helped him sell books.
THAT SAME WILLINGNESS to be candid, however, also reveals another side, indeed a dark side, to the service Gates offered his country. In September 2007, Gates’s main task was to fend off Democratic attacks on the war in Iraq in order to give President Bush and his military commanders more time to develop strategies for improving America’s crumbling position in that country. Meeting with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, he impressed upon her the necessity of passing a defense-appropriations bill and resisting efforts to attach conditions on funding for the war in Iraq. Pelosi turned him down flat. “I wasn’t surprised,” Gates writes. “After all, one wouldn’t want facts and reality—not to mention the national interest—to intrude upon partisan politics, would one?”
The arrogance behind Gates’s comment is breathtaking. George W. Bush had taken the country to war on a lie. Elections are the mechanism we use to ensure a modicum of accountability for such actions. The conversation between Pelosi and Gates took place as a new electoral campaign was in the making—a campaign in which Americans wound up electing a president who had opposed Bush’s war. In this context, Pelosi, representing both her party and her constituents, had every right to refuse the requests of the Bush administration. By sarcastically dismissing Pelosi and her concerns, Gates reveals how little respect he has for the democratic process; anger, he does not seem to understand, is the price we pay for irresponsible leadership. There was no room for that kind of anger in Gates’s notion of duty. His was never to reason why. That explains why his love for the troops, as moving as it is, comes far too late: the best way to ensure that American troops do not wind up in Landstuhl is not to send them on hopeless and ill-defined missions in the first place. It was, I believe, because Pelosi also hated to see young people die that she turned Gates down.
As for facts and reality, it was the Bush administration, which Gates faithfully served, that ignored them. Where, one has to wonder, is the anger directed against a president who knew so little, risked so much, and refused to acknowledge any mistakes? Gates presents himself as a pragmatic manager working to get things done. The problem is that managerial skills used in the service of getting the wrong things done is of little help to the troops or anyone else. Concerned only with means and not ends, Gates praises Bush for all the personal characteristics that led the country to disaster. “I found him at ease with himself and comfortable in the decisions he had made,” he writes of Bush. “This was a mature leader who had walked a supremely difficult path for five years.” That Bush never understood the consequences of his actions was less important to Gates than that “he was a man of character, a man of convictions, and a man of action.” Gates blames his failures to get his way not only on politicians like Pelosi but on Pentagon bureaucrats defending their turf. Those targets are too easy. Blame for Iraq belongs at the very top. A truly candid memoir would have posed the question of how the United States found itself fighting the wrong war in the wrong place.
For all his finger-pointing, that is a question Gates avoids. It is not an exaggeration to say that the great bulk of the work facing Gates as secretary of defense was to manage the fallout created by one of the worst presidents in our history. In this he did about as well as any single individual could do. But just as his respect for the troops comes too late, so does his sense of duty. In this case, duty requires a frank and honest discussion about how the response to the events of September 11 turned so sour. Assigning blame is a duty Gates shirks.
For whatever reason, most likely to deflect attacks on his lack of foreign-policy experience, Barack Obama asked Gates to stay on. “I thought Obama was first-rate in both intellect and temperament,” Gates writes. But, he continues, Obama disliked passion, and it showed in his relationship with the troops fighting in Afghanistan. “When soldiers put their lives on the line, they need to know that the commander in chief who sent them in harm’s way believes in their mission. They need him to talk often to them and to the country, not just to express gratitude for their service and sacrifice but also to explain and affirm why that sacrifice is necessary, why their fight is noble, why their cause is just, and why they must prevail. President Obama never did that.” I read this as a recommendation to infantilize the troops, most of whom were far too jaded to buy into such patriotic mush. When a large number of troops are already committing suicide or requiring extensive psychiatric help, following Gates’s advice would have made the personal crises they faced far worse by asking overstretched troops to achieve impossible objectives. Obama made clear, even while sending more troops to that country, that he wanted them home as soon as possible. That, and not Bush’s bluster, is what leadership is all about.
Working for a Democratic president, the contempt for democracy Gates showed in his meeting with Pelosi took on a whole new life. Gates writes as if wars can be won, but only if society gives the war-makers unchecked authority to win it, shooing away those institutions of public understanding and engagement that stand in the way. The key decision facing Obama was whether to pursue a policy of counterterrorism or counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. (The former would seek the limited objective of reducing terror; the latter would be aimed at creating a more stable and secure Afghanistan.) It all came down to whether something like the surge used in Iraq could be used in America’s other war and, if so, how many new troops should be sent there. Gates, who favored the counterinsurgency strategy, complains that decision-making was complicated by what he calls “the obtuseness of many of those at home”—which others might label democracy at work. His example? The family of twenty-one-year-old Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard objected to the publication of a photo of his dead body, but the Associated Press decided to publish it anyway. Gates calls the AP decision an “outrage.” Others might view it as an attempt to make real the costs of war so that Americans would be better prepared to make decisions about future commitments to another one.
Unlike Bush, Obama was deliberative. According to Gates, a total of nine two-to-three-hour meetings were called by the president so that he could get Afghanistan right. It is not unknown in our society, indeed it is rather routine, for military leaders to put pressure on the president by emphasizing the danger of not acting decisively. In this case, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, an advocate for the counterinsurgency approach, offered such an assessment to Obama, only to see it leaked to the Washington Post. Needless to say, Gates was furious that ordinary people might learn something about how their money was to be spent and the lives of their children put at risk.
BUT THAT IS NOT what makes Gates’s telling of this story interesting. Gates writes that he would be “very surprised” to learn that McChrystal himself had anything to do with the leak. Although it certainly seemed to Obama and his advisors that the military was double-crossing them in the hope of getting more troops, Gates “tried to persuade Obama that there was no plan, no coordinated effort by the three military men to jam him.” Relying on the ever-helpful passive voice, Gates writes that, as a result of Obama’s suspicions, “a wall was going up between the military and the White House.” If Gates sometimes seems to infantilize the troops, here he is doing the same for his readers. Military leaders in a democracy use whatever tactics they can to get what they want. That is called politics, and the military practices it just as politicians do.
Gates refuses to see it that way. “In the end,” he writes of the Afghan deliberations, “I felt this major national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and by domestic politics than any other in my experience.” For Gates, there are those guided by the maxim of duty, who simply want to do what is right, and those guided by the maxim of politics, who want to do only what is popular. He writes, “The aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders” by Obama’s advisers “made them overly defensive, hardening their unwillingness to compromise.” Gates may not fully understand what he is saying here, for he appears to be acknowledging that at times the military is in fact not guided by the national interest but by what it can get at the bargaining table. So, it turns out, was Gates. “My anger and frustration with the White House staff and the NSS during the process led me to become more protective of the military and a stronger advocate for its position than I should have been.” Political concerns may well have influenced decisions with respect to Afghanistan, motivating those who wanted a more aggressive posture as well as those who did not.
Gates has been criticized for leaving out of his memoirs all the things he got wrong, such as the Iran-Contra affair and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Far more damaging, I believe, is what he puts in. Gates’s memoir is engaging to read. As a public servant, he comes across as a man of experience and discretion. Yet anyone who believes that the United States has lost much of its democratic character as it has ceded ever greater matters to the military will find Gates’s anger misplaced and his praise for his own accomplishments grating. America needs leaders who understand their duty to be restoring some sense of control over the military in the hope of winning our democracy back. A little anger toward those who led the country so astray might be the best place to begin.
About the Author
Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, and the author of Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (Knopf).