By now, a lot of journalists have mined all the “money quotes” from former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s memoir, Duty.
Even before the book came out, we learned that Gates is contemptuous of Congress, believes that Vice President Joe Biden has been wrong on pretty much everything in foreign policy for four decades, that Hillary Clinton is a politically-motivated poseur, and that he believes his “minimalist goals” on Iraq were realized.
These revelations have to be considered in the context of two facts: First, Gates was the first defense secretary ever held over from one administration to another despite the glaring differences in policies, ideologies and personalities; and second, that by virtue of the fact that his name isn’t Donald Rumsfeld, he apparently believed he’d be treated with greater respect and dignity than was his predecessor.
We’re told by assorted pundits that Gates’ book is rife with anger. In the words of one, Gates needs either a nap or a Xanax or – dramatic pause – there is something wrong in Washington.
There is anger in the book, especially at Congress, but its tone isn’t one of anger or even frustration. What anger there is becomes lost in the details of hundreds of conversations and memos. In the end, Gates seems to have never resolved in his own mind the conflicts he recounts.
Gates fit in with President Bush and his cabinet after Rumsfeld’s resignation in 2006. Gates says that he joined the Bush administration reluctantly.
But it went downhill from there. At one point, Gates writes that he didn’t like being defense secretary. At another, he says he detested the job. At a third, he tells us he was “fed up.”
Yet he stayed on for more than four years across two administrations that could not have been more different. We never find out why.
Up to the point that he joined the Obama cabinet, Gates had served eight presidents in key positions such as director of central intelligence.
The first few he served in lesser positions. But all differed in policy and politics. It must have taken an exceptional case of malleability to be able to serve them all, especially Bush and Obama.
Gates must have seen Obama’s 2008 campaign through his historian’s eye. He knew that Obama’s campaign was based on condemnation of everything Bush had done in his eight years in office.
After having battled for Bush’s agenda in Iraq for two years, how could he have believed that his views, values and policies could be acceptable to Obama?
In short, he couldn’t have. Yet he managed to fit in with Clinton, Obama, and Biden well enough to stay on for two years.
Gates’s tenure at DOD was unmarked by achievement under Bush. Most of the military community regarded him as a faithful placeholder.
He achieved that, and more, under Obama. He believed he engineered a withdrawal that achieved his “minimalist goals” to “stabilize the country so that America would not be seen to have suffered a strategic defeat.”
His timing is unfortunate. Iraq is, at an accelerating rate, unravelling daily. Al Qaeda is resurgent, President Nouri al-Maliki has allied himself closely with Iran and is now asking for more U.S. weapons to fight the Sunni insurgents. Only the Kurds know what they want.
Gates did perform two memorable tasks for Obama. When Obama told him that there would have to be cuts in defense spending, Gates dutifully went back to the Pentagon and began drafting a budget that would cut over $350 billion from defense spending (really, closer to $400 billion) over 10 years by cutting a large number of expensive programs of the type he opposed.
In the Reagan Era, the process of “Defense Guidance” took the best international intelligence, derived from it the matrix of threats that had to be defended against or deterred, and from that derived the manpower, weapon systems and other assets the Pentagon would buy, retire or repair. There’s no evidence that Gates did that. He cut what he thought should be cut.
Gates’s other significant achievement for Obama was to not resign. Obama, in Gates’s words, didn’t believe in the Afghanistan strategy he devised, didn’t trust his commander, couldn’t stand Karzai and didn’t accept responsibility for the war.
Which meant that every life spent there since 2009 was, in accordance with the president’s strategy, wasted.
If Gates had been guided by principle and had not been so malleable, he would have resigned on principle on more than one occasion. That he did not probably says all we need to know about the man.
Jed Babbin is an op-ed contributor to The Washington Examiner. He was appointed deputy undersecretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush. He is a contributing editor for The American Spectator and the author of such best-selling books as "Inside the Asylum" and "In the Words of Our Enemies."
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