A White House insider’s angry account of war
Robert Gates served under Bush and Obama but above all he was the ‘soldiers’ secretary’
Robert Gates with Barack Obama and Admiral Mike Mullen at a Gates farewell ceremony. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters
Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Robert M Gates
The disdain Robert Gates has for self-interested members of Congress, upstart White House aides and senior Obama administration figures, which drips from the pages of this memoir, explains the rare publication of a hostile portrayal of a sitting president by a former member of his cabinet.
This angry, score-settling account of life behind the scenes in the Obama White House (and in the final two years of George W Bush’s presidency) is essential reading for followers of US political life. It is one of the few occasions when the powerful public-relations force field protecting the image of the current US president has been penetrated so deeply. In this case it is even more remarkable that the betrayal has come from such a high-ranking member of his team: his former defence secretary.
The book surfaces at a pivotal moment in American foreign policy, as the US has exited one messy conflict, in Iraq, with little glory and is attempting to extricate itself from another, in Afghanistan. The timing is significant, as the country tries to limit further action, with Syria and Iran, by recalibrating foreign-policy strategy from “hard” military intervention to “soft” diplomacy against the backdrop of a dysfunctional Congress riven by intractable tribal differences and extreme political factions.
The Kansas native writes with a measured authority that comes with the experience of serving eight US presidents in intelligence and national-security roles. He offers a unique viewpoint of two very different administrations, having served as secretary of defence to George W Bush, a war-starting conservative Republican, and Barack Obama, a war-ending liberal Democrat, over a four-and-a-half-year term, a tenure that made him the fifth longest-serving defence secretary in US history. No previous defence secretary had ever stayed in the role under a newly elected president.
The heavy emotional load Gates bore as defence secretary was donned at the outset of his time in office. He took the job reluctantly, telling Bush: “Because all of those kids were doing their duty, I had no choice but to do mine.” Eventually, after more than four years of writing personal condolences to the families of thousands of slain soldiers most evenings, and fighting back tears during public speeches, his bond with the troops he sent to war became too great. This battle-weary “soldiers’ secretary” lost the objectivity the job required by making their protection his top priority.
This book could just as easily have been called Burden . Gates repeatedly (too repeatedly) writes that every day as defence secretary from December 2006 to July 2011 the US was waging two major wars. They were the longest (Afghanistan) and second-longest (Iraq) wars in US history, and he managed them while trying to sustain support in Congress, manage three million staff, overhaul the Pentagon’s military hardware to fight a changing type of warfare and trim the military’s $700 billion annual budget.
During his time as secretary he counted 12 visits to Afghanistan and 14 to Iraq. An earlier visit to Iraq in 2006 included a stopover at Shannon, where Gates and Leon Panetta, his successor in defence, made a dash for the duty free to stock up on booze, knowing it would be hard to get in Baghdad.
Gates didn’t just fight wars overseas; many were personal and fought at home in the US. One of the hardest fought was with senior administration people, most notably Joe Biden, for whom Gates had little time. The US vice-president seemed to represent the interests of politics over national-security interests by blocking smart military action because it wouldn’t wash with the public. “He has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” says Gates.
He reveals how Obama and his aides distrusted their military commanders and suspected them of “gaming” the president to force through unpopular military decisions they believed were necessary.
The most fascinating encounters relate to the battles over the increase in troop numbers in Afghanistan, the so-called surge, when Obama overruled the advice of Biden and his aides who believed the military was trying to “jam” the president into a particular strategy by leaking to the media in advance that the war was doomed if there weren’t more boots on the ground. All this made for a difficult policy shift for a president who had promised to end the country’s “endless” wars.
Senators and congressmen also get a roasting. Outraged by the “parochial self-interest of all but a very few members of Congress”, Gates recalls how Harry Reid, the Democrat Senate majority leader, often contacted him about air-force objections to a windfarm in his home state of Nevada. On another occasion Reid urged him to invest some defence money in research on irritable-bowel syndrome.
Gates’s most revealing insights are on Obama himself. Bush and Obama had much more in common than he had expected, he says; they were both most comfortable around a coterie of close aides and friends, they largely shunned the Washington social scene and they detested Congress.
Few knew how Obama’s familiar broad smile could quickly disappear, “giving way to a glacial look”, says Gates; the only other person he had worked with who could change expressions so dramatically and quickly was Margaret Thatcher. Like Thatcher, Obama relished executive authority. He told Gates that one reason he ran for president was because he was so bored in the Senate.
The most damning criticism levelled at Obama was that he doubted his own strategy on Afghanistan and failed to take greater ownership of the Afghan war. “He needed to say publicly why the troops’ sacrifices were necessary,” says Gates, ever protective of his beloved men and women in uniform.
Managing the US military through such traumatic change appears to have been a scarring experience for Gates, judging from this deeply confessional and intriguing account.