Robert Gates is a man who has served faithfully on defense issues in administrations from Nixon to the present one. He has worked with both Republican and Democrat presidents and has built a reputation of steadfastness and integrity respected by both sides of the political world. He has now decided to let his thoughts out on what it was like to be secretary of defense for both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, has just become available. I haven’t read it yet so can’t comment on the contents entirely; I plan to get it soon. However, tantalizing bits from the book have been released over the past week, and those excerpts have caused quite a stir.
People who know him and his reputation are surprised that he is so open with his views now that he has left office with no expectation of returning to the fray. According to reports, the book paints a picture of President Obama that is not very flattering overall. Gates credits the president with courage for deciding to take out Osama bin Laden, but expresses dismay at the constant intrusion of political considerations into the decisionmaking.
While he contends that political influences weren’t necessarily the final determining factor in military and defense decisions, he was startled by what a powerful role they played, especially when dealing with the security of the nation. He writes of overhearing both Obama and Hillary Clinton admitting to opposing Bush’s surge in Iraq for purely political reasons. He says the only real passion he ever saw Obama exhibit on military matters was the push to overturn “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And he was astonished that Obama didn’t trust any of the leading generals on the ground in Afghanistan and only agreed to some type of surge there halfheartedly. In fact, he says Obama didn’t really expect it to work, but did it anyway with no enthusiasm.
Gates has far kinder words for Bush, considering him a man of integrity who sought to do what was best for the country’s security. But he is quite harsh, apparently, on congressional leaders in both parties who, he believes, are more concerned with preening before television cameras for their own political fortunes rather than being serious about defense policies.
Interestingly, these excerpts show he has considerable disdain for VP Biden; Gates opines that Biden has been wrong about every foreign policy issue during his entire four decades in Washington:
That’s about all I should say at this point. When I get the chance to read the book for myself, I’ll have a more solid basis for further comment. Yet what we already know is pretty damaging to an administration that has been rather adept at damaging itself in almost every endeavor it has attempted. Except for some specific anecdotes, perhaps the question we should really ask is whether Gates is telling us anything we didn’t know from our own observations. But even if all he has given us is confirmation of the obvious, that’s still a public service.