Loose Canons

A Secretary at War With Himself

Robert Gates never really explains himself.

By 2.7.14

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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
By Robert Gates
(Knopf, 618 pages, $35)

Robert Gates’s memoir, Duty, bridges the gap between the Bush-era memoirs of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Tony Blair and the Obama era. Gates, perhaps the ultimate Washington insider, is the only defense secretary ever to be held over from one administration to another.

Gates gives little insight about himself and if you read Duty, you will come away with many nagging thoughts about unanswered questions.

Having served eight presidents in various national security positions including as Director of Central Intelligence for Bush 41, Gates was serving contentedly as president of Texas A&M when the call came asking him if he would consider becoming Bush 43’s secretary of defense upon the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Though reluctant to take the job, Gates nevertheless answered the call to duty.

When someone with Rumsfeld’s stature leaves, especially when he’s been there so long (nearly six years) and when the president’s term is coming to a close, a new cabinet member is bound to be little more than a placeholder. In Gates’s case the biggest decisions — on war and peace in Afghanistan and Iraq — had been made long ago.

Gates is rightly proud of his actions that pushed production of the armored Humvee called the “MRAP” (for mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle) through a lot of red tape to get them to the troops that needed them in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also justly proud of his actions to clean up the mess at Walter Reed Medical Center that had served our wounded poorly for far too long. Though Gates was determined to be more than a bookmark, he didn’t have many important accomplishments in the remaining two years of Bush’s presidency.

Gates writes that he was brought on to save both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from failure. Though he didn’t accomplish that in either war, it’s fair to say that these wars were lost before he entered the scene. He oversaw the Bush troop surge into Iraq in 2006-2007 and the Obama surge into Afghanistan in 2010. Neither was his decision, and thus begins the trail of unanswered questions.

Gates writes that he didn’t enjoy being defense secretary. Under Obama, that dislike quickly became disdain and then evolved into a hatred for the job. Though he accepted the appointment by Bush as a matter of duty, why did he stay on so long with Obama?

There was every reason for him not to continue as Obama’s defense secretary and, as he writes, Gates was provoked time and again in a manner that would certainly have resulted in the resignation of others.

Gates’s exercise in seeking the job from Obama reminds me of an episode of the old BBC comedy “Yes, Minister.” There, the minister campaigns to become prime minister by telling just the right important people that he wouldn’t like to be PM but — wink, wink — he would take the job if Queen, country, and party required him to. Gates dropped hints in all the right places that he wouldn’t like to stay on, but never turned Obama’s staff away when they made the right inquiry. When Obama indicated that he might want him, it took only one meeting of the two (a fifty-minute meeting) at the end of which Gates agreed to stay.

It’s inconceivable that Gates hadn’t studied Obama closely before that meeting, but there is no indication that he had. In the course of fifty minutes, Gates says he asked Obama why Obama wanted him to stay, for how long, and did he trust Gates? How would he avoid isolation among Obama’s team, and who would be Deputy Secretary of Defense? Could he keep any of his current appointees? All bureaucratic concerns entirely lacking in substance.

In the meeting, Gates also asked Obama if he foresaw any need to reduce the defense budget, which Obama answered by saying there would have to be cuts. Last, Gates asked Obama if they were “in the same place” on Iraq and Afghanistan and if there was flexibility on how to reach the goals. Obama said there was. That was the only question about policy, and it only skimmed the surface.

No one who is going to be secretary of defense for any president could be so concerned with bureaucracy and so blasé about policy and substance as was Gates. Gates didn’t bother to find out about his president-to-be’s positions on almost anything of importance, far less the basis for them. He had to know that the principal reason for Obama’s election was that he campaigned against everything Bush from the time he became president.

He also had to have known that — as he concludes later — that Vice President Biden (whose “expertise” on foreign policy was advertised widely in the 2008 campaign) was wrong on every issue of importance of the last 40 years. Yet he asked nothing about what ol’ Joe’s policy role would be.

Yet on that thin-as-air basis, Gates agreed to stay on before the meeting ended. That was on November 10, less than a week after Obama’s election.

Gates’s malleability is the reason. He was content that he’d be able to mold his positions to suit Obama. This he did both comprehensively and rapidly.

Gates was so malleable that, in a matter of days or even minutes, he could turn his position into the president’s regardless of the distance between them. When Bush was president, the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was — according to the president — necessary to national security. Gates defended Gitmo against closure, saying just as the president had then that there was no alternative for prisoners who were too dangerous to release and couldn’t be tried.

But on December 15, 2008 — six weeks after Obama’s election — Gates was already arguing for a definite date on which Gitmo would be closed.

President Bush and all the uniformed military leadership were against repealing the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law prohibiting homosexuals from serving openly in the military. When President Obama surprised Gates by telling him that he’d demand repeal in a State of the Union address, Gates first insisted on time to do a “survey” to paper over the repeal. He writes of his concern that we shouldn’t make this kind of change in the midst of two wars, and that the burden of it would fall on the shoulders of the NCOs and company grade officers “…who were already under the most stress.” But when the White House staff was urging Congress to pass a repeal even before the “survey” was done, he went to Obama with the issue, got nowhere and — in his words — “threw in the towel.”

This brings us to the ultimate question that Gates never answers: despite all the provocations, all the decisions made against his recommendations, despite all the indignities he suffered, why didn’t he resign?

As Gates should have foreseen, things went downhill quickly after Obama’s inauguration. He encountered so many congressmen and senators who were intolerably rude, obnoxious, and stupid he often thought of resigning in mid-hearing, telling them there wasn’t any SOB who could talk to him that way. Gates found that Obama and his National Security Council staff (notably including the only other holdover from Bush, Army general and former “war czar” Douglas Lute) micromanaged everything to do with defense. He wasn’t permitted to exercise the authority of the office he held. And yet he continued to serve Obama.

In December 2009 — after many months' deliberation — Obama announced the Afghanistan troop surge. But Gates was beaten down. He wrote, “After the president’s announcement, I wrote a note to myself: ‘I’m really disgusted with this process, I’m tired of politics overriding the national interest, the White House staff outweighing the national security team, and NSS (Donilon and Lute) micromanagement...I’m fed up.’”

Gates writes later that he never confronted Obama about those issues. He stayed and stayed despite — in his words — politics trumping the nation’s interest.

In June 2010, Rolling Stone magazine published an article entitled “Runaway General” about Afghanistan overall commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It contained a pile of insubordinate remarks, the worst aimed at Joe Biden. In truth, any president should have fired McChrystal over the piece. Gates went to the White House and told Obama that we would lose the Afghanistan war if he fired the general.

Gates ill-advisedly put himself on the line for McChrystal. Obama fired McChrystal an hour later. That was a blow to Gates that left him without influence in the administration, if he had had any before. He had to resign then, but he didn’t.

In 2011, another eruption should have caused Gates to resign. In a Situation Room meeting, Gates recounts: “The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” (Emphasis in original).

If a president doesn’t believe in the strategy he’s pursuing, doesn’t trust the commander that’s pursuing it for him at the cost of American lives, how can a defense secretary not resign? It’s unfathomable why Gates didn’t. His failure to resign is entirely inconsistent with his claim to be concerned for the troops more than anything else: to weep over the dead, to be broken up by visiting the wounded and thinking constantly about them. If he were so dedicated to the troops, why didn’t he resign that instant?

Another mystery is why he had such a wonderful working relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When Gates was in his first year as Defense Secretary, Clinton was the junior senator from New York. Positioning herself to the left of MoveOn.org’s disgusting “Petraeus Betray Us” ad (which had run only a day or so before), Clinton told the general, in an open hearing, “The reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.”

According to his book, Gates had great respect for Clinton and had a smooth working relationship with her. He also reports a previously undisclosed discussion between Clinton and Obama when she admits that she opposed the surge of troops to Iraq for purely political reasons related to the Iowa Caucuses when she ran against Obama.

That Gates could have any cordial relationship with such a person tells us a lot about his dedication to principle. It says even more about Petraeus, who eagerly joined Team Obama as CIA Director and also got along well with Hillary.

So what compelled him to stay?

Gates never tells us. What was the one thing — or were the dozen things — he felt compelled to accomplish before he retired? Was there some special talent he thought he and no one else had? What kept him there despite his disgust with the job, with Congress, with Hillary, Joe Biden, and the rest?

In nearly 600 pages, we never find out the answers. We are left to conclude that there really weren’t any. Gates’s conflicts are left unresolved and apparently in his own mind. Gates’s compulsion to stay, whatever it was, was never so important to him that he believed he needed to explain it.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.