Gates and the Duty Dilemma


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 images.)



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