Book Review: Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (above) wrote Duty not to tritely vent anger and disappointment over his recent experience in the US government, but to engage in a sincere effort to improve the government’s handling of defense and foreign policy issues. 

In a March 25, 2014 Wall Street Journal editorial entitled, “Putin’s Challenge to the West,” former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote: “Mr. Putin aspires to restore Russia’s global power and influence and to bring the now independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Moscow’s orbit. While he has no apparent desire to recreate the Soviet Union (which would include responsibility for a number of economic basket cases.), he is determined to create a Russian sphere of influence—political, economic, and security—and dominance. There is no grand plan or strategy to do this, just opportunistic and ruthless aspiration. And patience.”  Gates, an American statesman, a former cabinet member of two administrations, patriotic and dedicated to his country, now out of government, sought to contribute to the US policy debate on Russia by writing this assessment of Putin’s moves in Ukraine.  Much as he was compelled to use his experience as a national security official, and expertise on the former Soviet republics to write his editorial, Gates was inspired to write his latest book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

Some reviewers have referred to Duty as a tell-all, arguing Gates was motivated write it by the urge to settle scores.  They point to the fact that it would seem impossible for any future president to hire Gates for a cabinet post.  However, Gates intentions were not so banal, and at 70, he certainly is not concerned with gaining a post in any future administration.  Just as when he decided to leave civilian life to take the position of Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration in 2006, Gates saw the possibility of sharing today the benefits of his experience, lessons he learned, and mentoring from those who selflessly protected the US for decades under far more demanding, dangerous circumstances.  As the US heads into dark territory with Russia and perhaps Iran and North Korea, his comments in Duty will prove significant to those who need to know what to do. Never wanting to see his country or president fail, writing Duty, with great passion and candor, was a way for Gates to ignite positive change and improvement.  Undeniably, he has managed to reach administration officials and Members of Congress, many of whom were unwilling to listen to his advice while he was serving in government.  In using this method to reach official Washington, calling attention to what he saw as the error in its ways, Gates put much at risk. Yet, in that way, Duty is truly an articulation of Gates’ generosity.

Some reviewers have found it enough to say Gates rose from the ranks at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), joining in 1967 via the US Air Force, but that is not enough to help readers understand the prism through which he views service in government.  The CIA of the Cold War years was different in many ways for the Agency today.  As he moved through numerous major events in his early career, Gates worked effectively as yeast within wheat flour, quietly, perhaps initially undetected.  Yet, over time, he was seen as having a positive impact through his work, eventually recognized as being part of the process of moving things forward.  He was never the sort to be negative or appear disgruntled.  During his career, Gates likely came in contact with CIA officers such as, Donald Gregg, Robert Ames, Gary Schroen, Jack Devine, Dewey Clarridge, Claire George, James Lilley, William Buckley, James Delaney, William Colby, Richard Helms, and Vernon Walters, with whom dozens of stories of ingenuity, courage, sacrifice, and patriotism are coupled.  Contacts with such associates and a multitude of others helped Gates develop a greater understanding of the world and other ways of thinking, on top of all he was learning directly through his duties as an analyst on the Agency’s Directorate of Intelligence.

As Gates reached the senior ranks of the organization, especially the job of Deputy Director of CIA, his work at headquarters was supplemented by travels worldwide, to establish or ensure understandings and agreements the Agency had with foreign personalities, some with whom most professionals and the average person would never wish to come in contact.  By that time, Gates was also made very familiar with the more esoteric, advanced, and somewhat frightening aspects of the US intelligence community’s activities.  Outside of CIA, he worked closely with Brent Scowcroft, as well as with Colin Powell and James Baker, legends in the world of US foreign and defense policy.  He was Deputy National Security Advisor during the fall of the Soviet Union.  Eventually he would become the Director of CIA. Gates’ counsel was highly valued among senior foreign and defense policy officials and presidents.

Before Gates came back to Washington to serve as Secretary of Defense, he served as President of Texas A&M University and a member of several corporate boards. He moved away from the worries of national security, leaving the job to the capable hands of others.  While developing the minds of young men and women was the concept and intent behind his service at Texas A&M, he also had a chance to reflect on his life and career.  That time of calmness and peacefulness allowed him to sharpen his discernment and see what is really inside himself.  It was likely in that period, that Gates recognized the importance of being candid and forth-right with associates.  Being polite is a virtue; silence is golden. However, remaining silent when change or action is necessary is wrong.  When the flock has strayed, remaining silent is failure.  Having developed a reputation for nearly a century for being discreet, Gates, with Duty, seemingly put the concept of being forthright in full effect in order to repair matters.  He is honest about his associates, appropriately self-critical of his own judgments, and candid in reflecting on issues that might have been handled better.

With much attention being given to Gates criticisms, the fact that Duty is an interesting history of his work as secretary is nearly lost. Gates feels that he met the job’s challenges to include: managing the activities of the armed forces globally; developing the department’s budget, overseeing the research, acquisition, and procurement process for new systems; directing the Defense Department’s relations with allies and partners overseas, managing relations with other departments such as State, Energy, Homeland Security; directing the relationship of his department with the White House and the Congress; and, managing the relationship between the military services and the president.  When Gates arrived at the Defense Department, its bureaucracy was comfortable and resisted pressure to shift to a wartime footing, dragging its feet on urgent military needs as well as neglecting to adequately care for wounded warriors.  Gates explains how he assured $16 billion was in a supplemental budget to get thousands of much needed MRAP troop-carriers built and sent quickly to Iraq and Afghanistan, against objections from the service chiefs.  He produced a budget in the first year of the administration of US President Barack Obama that cut or curtailed 33 weapons programs, including the F-22 stealth fighter.  He changed the Army’s promotion board and thus allowed some of the most creative colonels, whose careers had been thwarted, to advance to the rank of general.  When he discovered the horrors at Walter Reed Army Hospital, he fired the Secretary of the Army and fixed the situation immediately.  He also fired the Air Force Chief of Staff for slowing down production and delivery of reconnaissance drones, which in Iraq helped the troops spot roadside bombs and track down the insurgents who planted them.  In agreement with just about all other reviewers, Gates’ descriptions of how he managed to successfully lead and effectively direct the Defense Department with a combination of cooption and coercion, tempered by decades of government service at the senior level, makes Duty a book that should be read by every future US Defense Secretary, as well as political and business leaders, and defense and foreign policy makers in any country.

Yet, the history of his tenure as Defense Secretary served as background to all of his appraisals of behavioral and attitudinal changes among officials and officers in the government since he left in 1993.  Gates clearly saw it as emblematic of a degraded quality of service to the US.  That apparently startled him the more than anyting else.  At the lower levels, Gates found the behavior of young members of the National Security Council staff unsettling.  The National Security Council (NSC) staff was dominated by young congressional and campaign staffers who had little or no experience in foreign policy.  Gates explains the young staffers would engage in meddling to include making calls to four-star generals.  Having served in similar positions under four previous presidents Gates says such actions would have constituted “a firing offense” in previous administrations.  There was apparently no model for the young staffers to follow that remotely resembled what Gates had known in the past.  Rank and title had lost its meaning.  Perhaps the assumption was made by younger staffers that all were equally finding their way as students in school.  They were likely never told and never consiered  that most older, senior professionals possessed a depth of knowledge tha coiuld have been useful to them.  Interestingly, during the Cold War, the KGB and GRU likely would have avoided any attempt to contact such young staffers as described by Gates, judging them as too erratic, possessing a far greater sense of importance than deserved, and displaying questionable judgment.

While former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was praised by Gates, characterizing her as cooperative and capable, many other senior officials at the White House also drew criticism from him.  Gates appraised Tom Donilon, the second National Security Advisor in the Obama administration as suspicious and distrustful of the uniformed military leadership to the point of stating in a meeting that it was “insubordinate” and “in revolt” against the White House.  At one point in an Oval Office meeting, Donilon was so argumentative about military operations that Gates contemplated walking out of the room in anger.  “It took every bit of my self-discipline to stay seated on the sofa.”  Gates referred to former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, as “hell on wheels” and “a whirling dervish with ­attention-deficit disorder.”

Gates’ criticism of US Vice President Joe Biden has received considerable note in the media.  He depicts Biden as being loud and garrulous and a comical “motor mouth,” obsessed with politics over substance.  At the same time, he says Biden is “simply impossible not to like.”  Gates explains how Biden presumes to know more about counterterrorism than an experienced Special Operations general.  However, Gates only assessed that as an aspect of Biden’s “relentless attack” on “the integrity of the senior military leadership.”  Gates noted that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”  What he faults Biden most about is poisoning Obama’s relationship with his generals.  Gates stated, “I thought Biden was subjecting Obama to Chinese water torture, everyday saying, ‘the military can’t be trusted.’ ”

Regarding the presidents he served as a Defense Secretary at war, Gates explains President George W. Bush and his aides squandered the initial military victories in both wars by mistakes and short-sighted policies.  He expressed dislike for Bush’s “freedom agenda” as “too simplistic” and his objectives in Afghanistan as “embarrassingly ambitious (and historically naïve).”  He believes that the invasion of Iraq and the revelations about renditions, Abu Ghraib prison, and Guantánamo “fueled further anti-American feeling.”  Yet, Gates admits admiring Bush as “a man of character, a man of convictions, and a man of action.”   Readers may find an incongruity in these statements, Gates understands that presidents also have feelings, make errors, but have the right to be treated respectfully.  Errors on the other hand do not have rights and errors made by authorities should be given attention. Gates successfully managed to assist Bush by accelerating the isolation of Vice President Dick Cheney with a number of political maneuvers.  He clearly saw Cheney’s advice as questionable.  Before he left office, Gates reveals that Cheney advocated bombing both Syria and Iran. Gates explained that he almost singlehandedly kept Bush following through on that suggestion regarding Iran.

Gates served Obama well, encouraging and supporting him.  Gates clearly understood there were enormous gaps in Obama’s background, knowledge, and understanding with regard to national security.  Coming into the administration, Gates let the president know that he would be with him and would stand by him.  He asked Obama to trust him, and promised not to fail him.  Gates hoped there would be a process by which he could impart the best of what he knew for the president to absorb.  Indeed, the president spoke in confidence with Gates, often seeking out his counsel.  For Obama the policy making process on Afghanistan was agonizing and left him wary of his generals.  Concerned over being disrespected by them, Obama asked Gates, “Do they think because I’m young that I don’t see what they’re doing?”  However, Obama eventually became non-receptive to certain reasoning. Gates indicates that was perhaps due to competing messages from Biden and others.  Such competing voices, even worse, were further confusing the situation.  Some officials misunderstood what Gates had learned long before that the weight only falls on the president’s shoulders.  Clarity of thought is especially critical on tough issues.

Gates explains a break occurred with Obama in April 2011, just he was departing the administration.  Obama had previously agreed that Gates would restructure the defense budget but that its size would not be altered. In the face of midterm elections and fiscal pressures across the board, White House Chief of Staff, William Daley, informed Gates that he would need to cut the budget by another $400 billion over the next 10 years. Gates explained “I was furious.”   He writes. “I pointed my finger at Daley and said, ‘This White House’s word means nothing!’ ”  True, the president’s job is to set national priorities, and political changes unavoidably alter those settings; it’s the Defense Secretary’s job to devise the best strategy given his limited resources.  Yet, Gates, well aware of that, perhaps is not recounting the whole story of the agreement.  Perhaps it included a quid-pro-quo that was reneged upon.  Gates disappointment also could have been due to what he recognized as a pattern of mistrust and suspicion plaguing the White House’s relations with the Defense Department since 2009.  Gates already had a deep distrust of Obama’s staff, feeling betrayed on major promises made about the defense budget and about the process of allowing gay soldiers to serve openly in the military.  On top of that, Gates explained being in the White House Situation Room and thinking that “the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghan President Hamid] 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.”

If there was a point in the book where Gates could be said to have been aggressive and questionably constructive, it is in his discussion of the US Congress.  Gates sensed a superficiality about Congressional efforts, in which Members were not thinking deeply in the long term interests of US.  He witnessed a senselessness among those seemingly addicted to the insignificant.  He calls Members of the Senate “hypocritical and obtuse” and is angered by the “kangaroo-court environment” in committee hearings.  Gates states that the House of Representatives has “more than its fair share of crackpots” and “raving lunatics.”  He points to “rude, insulting, belittling, bullying, and all too often highly personal attacks” by Members.

Perhaps the real window into Gates soul was his thinking about the troops.  Gates really cares.  He was essentially traumatized by his role in sending US soldiers overseas to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He admits to crying over letters of condolence that he signed, later mulling over in bed the lives of those killed or wounded.  His emotions are genuine.  At one point Gates writes “I did not enjoy being secretary of defense.”  At another, he recalls telling a friend in an email, “People have no idea how much I detest this job.”  He reveals in Duty’s conclusion that he has requested to be buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of many of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 19th century Hanoverian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz stated, “Strength of character does not only consist of having strong feelings, but maintaining one’s balance in spite of them.”  Duty is not part of an effort by Gates to angrily vent disappointment over the government, but a sincere effort to improve US national security.  Too many have looked at the work from the wrong perspective. Gates understands that US strength was created through patriotism, dedication, hard work, and real sacrifice.  He has asked that those serving in the government now perform in that manner.  For that reason, Gates saves his criticism especially for those professionals and officials who set the example and standard for the young staffers.  With a sense of respect and collegiality toward his president and his associates, Gates was quiet while in government, but silence does not obviate intellectual inquiry or activity of the spirit and of the soul.  Now, Gates has voiced his thoughts.  Hopefully Gates will continue to speak out as loud as he can.  Without question, greatcharlie.com highly recommends Duty to all of its readers.  In time, it will be viewed as one of the greatest Washington insider memoirs ever.

By the way, Gates did more than assess the situation with Russia over Ukraine in his March 25th Wall Street Journal editorial.  He also offered a way forward worth considering. He explained: “The only way to counter Mr. Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the West also to play a strategic long game. That means to take actions that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that his worldview and goals—and his means of achieving them—over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia.” If negotiations betwee the US ad Russia over Ukraine fail, we shall see if his advice is taken, and see how it goes!

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