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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Robert M Gates
Knopf, 2014
640 pp., $35.00

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Paul D. Miller


Gates Unhinged

Government by bureaucratic drift.

According to the rules of a Washington parlor game, there is only one thing to do upon the release of a memoir by a former high-profile official: search the text for the most salacious, damning, or quotable put-downs of other officials and shout them over Twitter at your political opponents. Thus, if you have heard anything about former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' new memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, you know that he has some sharp criticisms of Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for being partisan and short-sighted. He is especially contemptuous of Congress. In private, he says, members of Congress were "sometimes insightful and intelligent," but TV cameras "had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf." Some members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee "were rude, nasty, and stupid."

But Gates is an even-handed critic, and both sides have plenty of material to work with. President George W. Bush was "much more intellectually curious than his public image," but "rarely questioned his own thinking." General David Petraeus was a hero for making the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq work, but Gates recognized that "we would need a strong and seasoned four-star officer" to serve as Petraeus' boss—because, Gates implies, Petraeus was the sort of subordinate that needed supervision. And the person who comes in for the most criticism is Gates himself: the memoir is riddled with admissions of his own failings, a model of self-flagellation.

Gates' criticisms are surprising because, while in office (from December 2006 to July 2011), he cultivated a restrained, non-partisan, cool persona. He won widespread praise for his straight talk—when asked during his confirmation hearings if the United States was winning the war in Iraq, he famously replied, simply, "No sir." Now he comes clean: it was all an act. He repeatedly admits he was "seething" underneath and talks about "the dramatic contrast between my public respect, bipartisanship, and calm, and my private frustration, disgust, and anger." He believed, rightly, that a public image of dispassionate objectivity would be a more effective tool for pushing his agenda than giving vent to his actual feelings. But if his earlier dispassion was a service to the nation, one wonders what the legacy of this memoir will be.

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Or, at least, the legacy of its reputation. In truth, Gates' book is not primarily a witty record of others' failings. Treating it chiefly as a gossip repository does it a disservice and, in fact, overlooks the bigger scandal that he records: the brokenness of the federal bureaucracy, the Department of Defense foremost. If what Gates records is true, it is simply astonishing what the Secretary of Defense cannot do within his own department. Gates spends long sections of the memoir detailing his battle with the bureaucracy over improving medical care for veterans; developing, procuring, and delivering mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles; building and buying more unmanned aerial vehicles for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and more. In Gates' view, the Department was focused almost entirely on preparing for the next large conventional war rather than winning the wars it was already in, the modern form of the military-industrial complex.

Gates' criticisms of the bureaucracy raise questions about the manageability of the American military establishment—indeed, of the American government. An individual human being can effectively manage only so many relationships at once. As the Defense Department has grown in scope and complexity since World War II (along with the rest of the government), the obvious solution is to introduce more layers of management and delegate more responsibilities downward so that the senior leadership deals only with top-level, strategic issues. But that also means the senior leadership is effectively powerless when it comes to day-to-day management and implementation—which is, of course, where strategy goes to die. The Secretary of Defense may be the least effectual employee in the entire department.

One gets the impression, from Gates' account, that the president and the National Security Council deliberate and decide with great earnestness while the bureaucracy—oblivious, inert, and imperturbable—keeps on doing what it has always done. I am convinced, from my own experience working on the NSC staff, that bureaucratic drift is a far more convincing explanation for America's foreign-policy short-sightedness than the dark suspicions of critics who warn of American imperialism or the corporate dominance of national security policy.

Gates tried, with some success, to challenge the bureaucracy. The smallest anecdote is telling and sadly funny. He admits that his attempt to wean the department off Microsoft PowerPoint was a rout. As a professor at the military's National Defense University, I see how minds go blank when I put up a slide. When I handwrite information on a dry-erase board, students absorb it three times: as I speak it, as they read it, and as they write it in their notes. Confronted with a slide, they stop listening, assume they can get a copy of the slides to read later, and don't bother to take notes. Slides allow the mind to go slack while still allowing the listener to feel like he's learning. Gates' futile assault was noble but doomed, a tilting at the windmills of military culture.

More seriously, Gates tried to challenge the system of rewards and promotions by daring to fire people. But he was inconsistent. He explains (rightly, I think) that General David McKiernan was simply not the right man to lead the complex war in Afghanistan and that relieving him in 2009 was one of his hardest decisions. But, inexplicably, he defends his recommendation to promote General George Casey who, after commanding U.S. troops in Iraq during the catastrophic years of 2004-2006, was named Army Chief of Staff, the highest ranking position in the Army.

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It is heartbreaking that the biggest thing Gates got wrong was Afghanistan. He admits to being "torn," and it shows. He argues that the United States needed to mount a counterinsurgency campaign with more troops and more civilians to improve governance and security, then laments that U.S. war aims had gotten too ambitious and too close to "nation building." He repeatedly claims that the attempt to build effective, democratic governance in Afghanistan was a "fantasy," despite that those are a chief component of the counterinsurgency strategy he calls for. He says he wanted to narrow the American effort down to military operations against the Taliban, but then spends several pages wringing his hands over how few State Department and USAID civilians were deployed to Afghanistan: if building governance was a fantasy, why worry about the lack of civilians devoted to its fruitless pursuit? And Gates complains that the United States spent too much time trying to build a central government "in a country that had virtually never had one," a talking point that, no matter how many times it is repeated by otherwise educated and intelligent people, has never been remotely true.

Gates has a problem with some of the facts. Karzai was elected in the fall of 2004, not 2003. Bruce Riedel is a leading expert on Pakistan, not the Middle East. Gates refers to Salafi jihadists as "Islamic fundamentalists," an anachronistic and contextually inappropriate label. The Afghan constitution is in fact quite ambiguous about when presidential terms end and did not necessarily require a May 2009 election date, as Gates claims. It is telling that Gates, clearly one of our most intelligent and meticulous public servants, couldn't think clearly about one of America's most pressing foreign policy challenges. Gates covers over his ignorance by invoking an imagined general ignorance about the mysterious land of Afghanistan. "We had learned nothing about the place in the 20 years since helping defeat the Soviets there." Who are "we"? Perhaps he should speak for himself.

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Gates has written an invaluable historical document. As the first Secretary of Defense to remain in office during a transition between presidents of different parties in wartime, he offers an unparalleled look at the internal workings of government during a precarious and unique time in American history. His look inside also helps us understand how well, or poorly, our government actually works, always a healthy service in a democracy. It is not high literature; long descriptions of bureaucratic turf battles will not move you to tears.

But his recounting of meetings with his troops might. Gates comes alive when he talks about the courage and selfless devotion of America's soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, writes earnestly of his love for them, and admits that he eventually quit in part because he felt his concern for the troops was undermining his judgment about American national security. It is cold to say so, but he was right: the safety of the troops is not the highest national security interest of the United States. States have armies precisely so they can risk them to secure other, higher interests. But of any failing in a Secretary of Defense, excessive concern for the troops is the most forgivable.

Paul D. Miller is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corp. He is a former CIA analyst and served from 2007 to 2009 as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the White House's National Security Staff. The views expressed here are his own.

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