Bob Gates’ Memoir, A Realist at War

By James Kitfield

With his Sphinx-like demeanor and penchant for playing his cards close to his chest, there was always something of Chauncey Gardner in former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ public persona. Like the gardener whose simple life lessons from tilling the soil propelled him to the top echelon of the Washington elite in the movie “Being There,” the 70-year-old Gates projected the understated pragmatism of a Cold War realist, and his mid-western common sense seemed to come from a different place and time that allowed him to transcend partisan politics and ably serve very different Republican and Democratic administrations in a time of war. However, as Gates reveals in his new book “Duty: Memoir of a Secretary at War,” beneath the quiet exterior was a complex man of seething frustrations and keen observations. Even if they reflect mostly what we already know about Washington and its power players, those observations are unlikely to bring comfort to his former bosses and colleagues. To wit:

Obama Conflicted About Afghan War

Gates witnessed firsthand how deeply conflicted President Barack Obama and his inner circle in the White House were about an Afghan war that was going south when Obama entered the Oval Office and worsened throughout his first year in office. The result was a commander-in-chief who sounded an uncertain trumpet, something that rankled Gates’ vision of wartime leadership.

“President Obama simply wanted to end the `bad war’ in Iraq and limit the U.S. role in the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan,” Gates writes at one point. “His fundamental problem in Afghanistan was that his political and philosophical preferences for winding down the U.S. role conflicted with his own pro-war public rhetoric (especially during the 2008 campaign), [and] the nearly unanimous recommendations of his senior civilian and military advisers in the Departments of State and Defense.”

Certainly Obama painted himself into a corner with his tough (and largely accurate) campaign rhetoric criticizing the Bush administration for under resourcing and largely ignoring the war in Afghanistan. It’s also true that compared to George W. Bush’s steadfast commitment to the Iraq troop “surge” of 2007-8, which Bush 43 rightly saw as a last chance to salvage his legacy from a lost war, Obama’s Hamlet-like hand-wringing in 2009-2010 struck Gates as weak leadership.

To add a bit of context, however, shortly after entering the Oval Office in early 2009 Obama essentially took ownership of the conflict by “surging” 21,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan. With the situation nevertheless continuing to deteriorate throughout the year, even Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the National Security Council’s point man on Afghanistan and Iraq, and another holdover from the Bush administration, was skeptical of a deeper U.S. troop commitment.  So too was former Lt. General Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. Ditto for Vice President Joe Biden and much of Obama’s inner-circle of political aides.

Bush the Decider, with Blinders

As a lifelong Republican, Gates seemed more comfortable with Bush than Obama. He notes that Bush had an easier affinity for the uniformed military, again, not surprising for a Republican former fighter pilot in the National Guard from Texas, as compared to a former Democrat community organizer from Chicago. In an especially revealing section of an often contradictory memoir, however, Gates himself notes the very different political dynamic and strategic calculations between the last two years of the Bush administration, and the first two years of Obama’s tenure.

“Clearly I had fewer issues with Bush. Partly that is because I worked for him in the last years of his presidency when, with the exception of the Iraq surge, nearly all the big national security decisions had been made. He had made his historical bed and would have to lie in it.” By contrast, Gates notes that Obama was an inexperienced president trying to change course in two wars, with an eye on re-election. “Domestic political considerations would therefore be a factor, though I believe never a decisive one, in virtually every major national security problem we tackled.”

For all of Bush’s decisiveness during Gates’ tenure as his secretary of Defense, Gates also notes that the “decider” never questioned his original decision to invade Iraq, a strategic blunder of historic proportions, nor admitted the opportunity costs it exacted on the Afghan campaign. “President Bush always detested the notion, but our later challenges in Afghanistan—especially the return of the Taliban in force by the time I reported for duty—were, I believe, significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq,” Gates writes.

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