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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.