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Gates and the Duty Dilemma

January 21st, 2014 - 1:01 pm

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You’re Bob Gates, the secretary of Defense for George W. Bush and then Barack Obama. During the Obama years, you attend high-level discussions at which you hear the nation’s leaders say some things that shock you, things that show the national interest is disregarded, as never before in your long experience, in favor of personal, political interest by the secretary of state and the president. Even things that threaten our soldiers’ lives and limbs.

In the last year of your tenure, the president reneges on promises he made to you regarding his support for your budget, thereby depriving the troops of weapons and of support for the wounded. And he speeds up the withdrawal from Afghanistan over your violent objections, breaking another commitment.

You’ve been around government all your life. You know that politics often trumps policy. Indeed, you were once humiliated and rejected as a nominee to head the CIA after you were accused of “politicizing intelligence.” But some of the things you hear disturb you more than anything you’ve heard in the past. Hillary and Obama say they supported the Iraqi surge for purely political reasons. And Obama “gives orders,” rather than just making decisions; he doesn’t understand how civilian control of the military works.

The president’s national security staff — at a record 350 slots (seven times the number under the elder Bush) — constantly meddles and tries to micromanage the two wars in which we’re engaged. At one point you have to tell the national security advisor that he’s not in the chain of command and that you will take your instructions from the president alone.

On the other hand, for all his faults, Obama’s actual policy decisions are generally what you want, and when there are disagreements, you sometimes come around to his judgment. He approves an Afghan surge — the very idea of which had not occurred to you (it came from General McChrystal’s analysis, which greatly surprised you but ultimately convinced you) — even though it rated to be politically unpopular, both with the Democrat base and with his own people inside the White House. To be sure, he announced there would be a full withdrawal of fighters in relatively short order, but that didn’t upset you. You later got angry when Obama lied to you about the withdrawal date, but you never thought anything great could be accomplished in Afghanistan anyway. You thought the best we could get was a fairly well-trained Afghan army, facing a Taliban-plus that we’d weakened. And maybe we could support some decent local governments.

And he did the bin Laden raid, which you initially opposed (you favored a drone strike) but then approved and admired.

For extras, you despise virtually every member of Congress. Hearings are contentious, often rude. Members are playing politics all the time. It takes forever and a week to get anything done. Plus there’s the Pentagon, where, of all places, lots and lots of officials and officers don’t seem to know that we’re at war. There’s very little urgency about protecting troops, and these guys just continue business as usual, without insisting that we get new vehicles into Iraq and then Afghanistan that will do better against the enemy’s most effective weapons (the Iranian-made IEDs and other “roadside bombs” and their ilk).

What to do?

The Washington wisdom says you either stay and suffer, do the best you can, or take your marbles home to the Great Northwest. You stayed for a couple of years, which Washington generally calls “the honorable thing.” That’s of a piece with your history. After all, you were brought in — to replace Rumsfeld — to preside over the retreat from Iraq, only to find that the policy had changed, and you then loyally and effectively presided over the surge.

You left for a reason that seemingly has nothing to do with policy disagreements, or the quality of political leadership. You left because you had become so emotionally close to the troops that you couldn’t talk to them or about them without choking up. You realized that you were no longer capable of reasoning objectively about war.

For me, that’s a truly honorable decision. You decided your decisions couldn’t be trusted any more, which meant you couldn’t do your job properly, and so you went home. Bravo.

Then you wrote Duty. It’s not nearly as polemical as the published excerpts suggest. Big chunks of the book’s six hundred (!) pages deal with bureaucratic maneuver, and few readers will want to plow through the lengthy descriptions — complete with substantial quotations — of the internal fights over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or funding for various aircraft. Anyway, your concerns by and large have to do with people, not with policy decisions, with which (to repeat) you don’t have very many fundamental disagreements. You are offended by the lack of professionalism, by the excessive role of ideology (the Obama loyalists truly believed that everything Bush did was wrong; this wasn’t “spin”); in short by the amateurishness of the top leaders, especially Biden and the National Security staffers.

You were an old-fashioned professional — a throwback to the WASP elite that ruled Washington in your formative years — surrounded by a crowd of new-breed activists who, as products of our failed educational system (about which I wish you had had more to say; after all, you were president of Texas A&M for several years), don’t know scuff from Shinola about the world and its history. You don’t understand them very well, nor their intimate bond with the president. You remark that Obama lacks passion (quoting his line to you that he ran for president in considerable part because he was “bored in the Senate”), yet those phalanxes of activists are very passionate, and they are there because he wants them there. Did you not consider the possibility that they are the foot soldiers for Obama’s passions?

There is at least one major issue that you give shockingly short shrift, namely Iran. It gets mentioned en passant a few times. You allude to their murderous activities in Iraq (almost nothing about similar actions in Afghanistan, not even a passing reference to Hekmatyar’s role as an active Iranian agent), and you get approval for our guys to go after them on the ground there (without discussing why they were ever off-limits in the first place, something we military families would still like to know, as it was apparently part of the Bush era’s rules of engagement). There is also a very brief lament at your inability to get “the system” to plan for contingencies that might provoke open armed conflict with the Islamic Republic.

But that discussion isn’t so much about American initiatives as it is about reacting to possible actions by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom you detest and for whom you reserve some of your book’s harshest language. But then, that’s only to be expected from someone whose two strategic gurus are Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, both of whom prefer Arab trillionaires and billionaires to the rough-and-tumble representatives of the Middle East’s lone free country. Yes, you keep telling us how strongly you support Israel, but it isn’t true. You resisted the attack on the Syrian/North Korean nuclear reactor (about which we knew nothing) the Israelis ultimately destroyed, and when, contrary to your own dire warnings, there was no Syrian (or Iranian, or Hezbollah or Hamas) response, you refused to rethink your template and repeated similarly dire warnings when it came to discussing possible action against the Iranian nuclear program. On what basis? “Iran isn’t Syria.”

There’s nothing about supporting the Iranian opposition, no comparison with Reagan’s policy of working with Soviet dissidents, trade unions, and Jewish refuseniks, and next to nothing about political or even economic warfare.

The one big policy fight was over Libya, where you lost out to the Valkyries (Clinton, Rice, Power) and the born-again hawks in Europe. You usually were on the winning side in such fights, even when it came to naming your successor. Panetta was on your short list, along with three other names that should have been cited as one of the big headlines in Duty. They were: Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and Michael Bloomberg. Yes, that Michael Bloomberg…

Which pretty much tells us why you had so few serious disagreements with either Bush or Obama. Good grief!

(Artwork created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)

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Top Rated Comments   
Gates replaced Rumsfelt because he was the only one the Democrat controlled Senate would approve. When the Democrats put their stamp of approval on something you can bet it's not good for our country or our security.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mr. Ledeen essentially reviews the Gates book. I would suggest this other book review is very helpful in considering Gates and his book. The review is of a book by John Rizzo, called "The Company", about the CIA where he worked for many years. The review from the Washington Times is by Anglelo Codevilla, who wrote The Ruling Class, and many other books, and also was on a staffer on a Senate committee overseeing intelligence matters. Read this quote slowly and think about it.

"Although the book is not what the advertising promises, it really does provide an accurate picture of life inside CIA. Its exclusive focus on how bureaucrats jostle and feel about one another is entirely consistent with my eight years of experience dealing with CIA’s top levels on the U.S. Senate’s behalf. The substance of any matter notwithstanding, it always came down to which bureaucrat would gain or lose what. The bureaucrats’ personal interests come first. The welfare and reputation of the agency come second. Everything else is incidental. This book seems to describe a collective human ice cream cone licking itself."

Now, to Gates book. And our Federal government in general. What in that paragraph is not true of every matter our Federal Government touches these days? What is not the worse for the involvement of these self-absorbed parasites? I cannot think of anything that is presently done by our government, including Gates and his own actions, that is not described by Codevilla's characterization of the CIA and those who oversaw it.

It was not always thus. But I believe it has been ever increasingly this way since the 1930s. Virtue has been slowly eliminated and replaced by hidden agendas and political motives that are the opposite of virtue. Where once belief in God helped check the dark side, that is now no longer a feature of any of these players. And we pay the price almost regardless of which party is in power.
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47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I applaud you Mr. Ledeen for reading the book. Now I can better spend my time doing otherwise.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (34)
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Ledeen -- your comment regarding Gates apparent hatred of Netanyahu was highly disconcerting (although certainly not your fault!).

While I would not at all call him an anti-Semite per se, he nevertheless lives in a class of people who are clearly overly quick to negatively judge an Israeli or Jew, and overly quick to fawn over an Arab prince or king (just like Obama). This likely comes from, as you point out, his old-world WASP mentality -- that would be the same mentality that has graces our illustrious Sate Department since at least WWII.

You further correctly point out his uncalled for vociferous opposition to the raid on the Syrian nuclear plant, by of all people, the liberal Olmert. He could not blame Netanyahu's (gasp) "speaking truth to power" in the White House for that.

And as you again say in an even more important point, he *never* re-evaluated his apparent knee-jerk anti-Israel stance on that raid (especially when it came to Iran). Thus one can only conclude, that when it comes to issues surrounding Israel, the gentleman does not consult his brain, but rather is driven by baser instincts.

Unfortunately, as I know you know Ledeen, the State Department and some of our military are rife with this type. A type who believes that, at a minimum, Israel should behave as a defacto "Jew-slave" to the US. And anything less is an "outrage!"

Of course your mention of who his mentors are was both telling and highly depressing...
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
This was also the mentality that caused the British to completely mess up the Palestinian mandate - and in their case it was overt anti-Semitism.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think Mr. Gates remains an honorable and brave man in both his positive and negative qualities in comparison to a lot of wimps in Washington.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good Lord, Michael. Bloomberg as Secretary of Defense? His major policy initiative would be to ban salt in base commissaries. My estimation of Gates went way down with that revelation.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Applaud your restraint. Even contemplating Bloomberg as a candidate is a window into Gates' shabby character and MO, a clear sign of a guy who is tightly calibrated and triangulated and talks out of his clenched ass. Bloomberg? Just what the nation needs. (Ah, I hear his defenders say, just a stalking horse, you peasant, you don't understand nuance. R-i-g-h-t.)

You will note some still see Gates as an 'honorable and brave man' ... in the sarcastic sense meant by Mark Anthony talking about Brutus in Julius Caesar, maybe, but that's it.

Time for Tex. A&M to rip out every trace. Burn him in effigy, maybe?
Whatever you do, don't buy the book -- it'll be remaindered real soon.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
tl;dr
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
So why comment?
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
Here is the REAL question. If the pentagon & o's hacks were screwing up the war, why didn't he call 'em on it publically? And why did he just keep his mouth shut & go along to get along w/o resigning? Gates is the MacNamera of this generation... He could have made a great difference & did nothing.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Exactly. Gates is complicit in everything that went down. Thousands of American troops dead in two failed wars, out of control defense budgets, etc. A man of integrity would have resigned and blown the whistle; clearly, Gates has no integrity.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you for the brief review. Although I never would buy the book, much less read it. I saw Gates as a hopeless Washington bureaucrat and a weak one at that. Does anyone here think that Obama would allow an effective manager to stay around?
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Wow.
Thank you for this column.

And these should be the leaders...oh my...

47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am 50 pages into the Gates book and WILL slog through it. Too many people are looking for an excuse NOT to confront complicated military and policy decisions and dismiss the study of them with some over-simplified retort. It is as if dismissing someone as a RINO-jerk, politician, whatever, somehow advances the cause, whatever that it. Here's a link to a series on the American Revolution that will give folks something to chew on. Define freedom and liberty when we are at war with our former king: http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/importance-observation-inspection/
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
The point being that the Committees of Correspondence, and the related committees, which most towns developed during the Revolutionary War did a lot of things which abridged the freedoms of not just loyalists, but also people who just did not care to contribute. That was an interim period after the King lost his sway and before a Federal government was actually formed. Were the government to do (as it sometime does) such things today there would be/is howling and yowling. My main point, as almost always, is that policy and history is complicated and a lot of questionable decisions get made, but SOME decision has to be made, after which, both the elites and the yahoos can grumble, curse, or threaten rebellion against the rebellion against the rebellion and so on.

Gates' book can provide information on policy and how it was determined. Reading it is a lot more work, than pronouncing him to be a miscreant. The fact that he served at SOD for both GWB and Obama makes him a sell-out to the extremists on both sides. Why complicate things by pointing out that he actually got something done?
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Robert Gates stayed in the Inner Circle for personal aggrandizement reasons, going along with the I Hate America & Israel crowd until he found others reasons and greater remunerative opportunities. There is nothing he has to say now that half of the voting populace didn't already know in 2008.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Seems as if the book was written by someone mindful of what would be the real meaning behind an invitation to join others on a fishing trip out in the middle of Lake Michigan.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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