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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.

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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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