Robert Gates had a nearly
five-year run at the Pentagon in which he cultivated an image of himself as the
consummate professional, the reluctant, bureaucratic hero with the steel trap
for a brain, the discreet adviser who was as humbled by the office he held as
he was by his meetings with the young troops fighting the wars he was brought
in to fix.
It were those characteristics
that helped define him, prompting the incoming Obama administration to make
history by asking Gates, President Bush's last secretary of defense, to remain
in his job. It led White House officials and members to Congress to brand him
as one of the best defense secretaries the Pentagon had ever seen. And that
reputation helped lift his stature above that of so many of the other Washington
officials who were so often seen as small-minded, ego-driven and politically
petty. Gates seemed to stand out in Washington because he seemed so unlike the
rest of the city's politicians and administration officials.
Until now. Gates, 70, has unmasked
himself as just another former Washington official writing just another
kiss-and-tell in the soon-to-be-released Duty:
Memoirs of a Secretary at War, in which he takes shots at a sitting commander-in-chief,
his top aides and Congress, an institution with which he often expressed
frustration - but also respect. Gates was known for being discreet and
sharp-minded, loyal to the office he occupied and careful about what he said in
public. So deliberate were his public pronouncements about wars or national
security policy or budgets that he became the E.F. Hutton of the Pentagon --
everyone leaned in every time he had something to say.
But now his brand seems
diminished by the scrappy, petty nature of many of his criticisms -- even though
some are substantive and legitimate -- and a legacy he seemed quietly
determined to protect may be permanently reduced to something less than what it
Norm Ornstein, an expert on Congress and politics at the American
Enterprise Institute, said he was struck by Gates' ability to keep up a facade
of calm despite his clearly strong, and often negative, feelings about his
administration colleagues. Ornstein said Gates did the administration a
significant favor by waiting until after the 2012 elections before releasing
the book, but said the work would still "alter the perception of a
man" who'd always been praised for his discretion and ability to work with
politicians of both parties.
"It will tarnish, to a degree, his entire reputation,"
Ornstein said. "It takes someone who left with a sterling reputation
across the board and it leaves a little bit of bad taste."
The harshness of the critique
that took most people in official Washington by surprise, even if it didn't
surprise any of those close to him.
"I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their
basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micro
managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put
self (and re-election) before country," Gates writes in the book. Gates writes that
he fantasized about walking out of the middle of many of the congressional
hearings he was forced to sit through. "There is no son of a bitch in the world
who can talk to me like that," he wrote, referring to members of Congress with
whom he exchanged sometimes testy exchanges that left him seething internally.
In public, however, Gates was deferential to a Congress in which he clearly
enjoyed bipartisan fawning. "Secretaries come and go, but the Senate Armed
Services Committee remains," he said during his confirmation hearing in 2006.
"If confirmed, I will seek your counsel and take it seriously."
The book appears to contain a number of contradictions that in and
of themselves seem un-Gates-like for a man who always seemed cocksure and so
certain of his beliefs that he was sometimes willing to fire those that
Although he writes toward the
end of the book that he believed Obama was right in each of the decisions he
made on Afghanistan, Gates also indicated Obama's lack of confidence in his own
decision to surge 30,000 American reinforcements into Afghanistan raised
questions about his leadership. Elsewhere, he writes that Obama made some of
his choices on Afghanistan because of perceived political necessity, only to
later write that the president overruled his political advisors in doing so.
The conflicting sentiments are out of character for a man who always prided
himself on the clarity and consistency of his beliefs.
2010, Gates writes that he had a tense meeting with Obama over the future size
of the budget. Gates felt that the president had committed himself to an
earlier agreement that would have largely spared the Defense Department from
cuts and was surprised to learn that Obama, citing the budget crisis, now
wanted the Pentagon to trim its costs. After the meeting, Obama gave him a
gift-wrapped package of expensive vodka with a note attached that read:
"Dear Bob, Sorry I drive you to drink. Barack Obama." Gates
appreciated the gesture, but it did little to mollify his sense of frustration
truth, I was extremely angry with President Obama on the afternoon of the
fourteenth. I felt he had breached faith with me both on the budget numbers for
FY2012-16 ... and on the promise that Defense could keep all the efficiencies
savings for reinvestment in military capabilities," Gates writes. "I
felt like all the work we had done in the efficiencies effort had been
unrewarded and, further, that I had been forced to break my word to the
military services. As in the spring with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," I
felt that agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as
they were politically convenient."
The biggest difference
between Gates' placid public demeanor and the fury that permeates the book
comes through in his treatment of Vice President Joe Biden, who he describes as
a political animal who distrusted the military and "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue
over the past four decades," particularly Afghanistan.
The two men had clashed bitterly
during the Obama
administration's tortured 2009 Afghan strategy review, with Gates, backed by the Pentagon's top military leaders, calling a broad
counterinsurgency strategy and Biden calling for a limited counterterrorism
one. Gates' views won out, but the passage of time has done little to diminish
his belief that Biden's views were outlandish and deeply flawed. The vice
president's approach, Gates writes, amounted to
a game of "Whac-A-Mole" rather than a viable "long term
strategy." The former defense chief writes that the administration's
adoption of own strategy, by contract, means that his "minimalist
goals...remain within reach in Afghanistan."
Three years later,
though, it's far from clear that Gates will prove to be so right about
Afghanistan and Biden so wrong. Take the most recent National Intelligence
Estimate about Afghanistan, which represents the collective judgment of the
American intelligence community. According to a report
in the Washington Post late last
year, the classified document concluded that the U.S.-led coalition's
battlefield wins are likely to largely disappear within three years regardless
of whether the Obama administration maintains a small American troop presence
there or continues to fund the Afghan security forces. The report, according to
the Post, said that the Taliban was
likely to become more powerful in the years ahead, not weaker, which would mean
that a central goal of the surge had failed.
Or take the Pentagon's
own assessment of the current state of the war. The Defense Department said the
Afghan security forces had rapidly grown in both size and skill, giving them
the ability to conduct the vast bulk of military operations across the country,
clear broad swaths of terrain, and largely prevent insurgents from returning.
Still, the report said the insurgency had been far from defeated.
"Insurgents maintained influence in
many rural areas that serve as platforms to attack urban areas, and were able
to carry out attacks with roughly the same frequency as in 2012," the
Pentagon report said. "The insurgency maintained an operational tempo this
year similar to the previous three years, and the geographic distribution of
attacks also remained roughly consistent."
Biden, according to accounts of the 2009 surge debate, had
also been deeply skeptical of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai has
validated many of Biden's doubts by harshly condemning the U.S. troop presence
in his country -- even though the survival of his regime depends on American
support -- and has refused to sign a pact that would clear the way for a
long-term U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Karzai's intransigence has infuriated
the administration and led some senior officials to argue that the U.S. should
simply withdraw all combat troops from the country and leave Karzai to his own
With U.S. combat troops slated to withdraw later this year,
Afghanistan could quickly descend into the chaos and instability that the surge
Gates favored -- and Biden opposed -- was designed to prevent.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security fellow at AEI who followed
Gates' tenure at the Pentagon closely, said she was struck by the former
defense chief's broad-based criticism of the administration. Eaglen, who said
she had not yet read the book,wondered if the harshness of Gates critique
reflected actual policy differences -- or personal vendettas.
"Is he really mad about defense cuts from a Puritan angle, or is he
angry that he wasn't consulted by the President first?" she said. "Or, was he
angry because Obama used him as cover [for cuts]?"
Eaglen, who said she has never been a big Gates supporter, agreed that
Gates was probably one of the most consequential secretaries of the last
several decades, but said she and other conservatives believed he used his
clout and power for the wrong things.
And she said in the end, the book helps reinforce the idea that he could
be a bit of a chameleon.
"He's like a prism," she said. "Whichever way you turn him, he's going
to reflect something different."
None of this is to say that what Gates said about the White House or
Congress is untruthful -- at least in his view or that of many others who served
with and for him. At least one senior officer who was present during much of
the Gates era corroborated Gates' views. "I found nothing inaccurate in the book
reviews that I've seen to date," the senior officer said.
Still, Gates' criticisms of
the commander-in-chief, who still presides over a war in which more than 38,000
American troops are currently fighting, struck one former administration
official as odd. Gates, who
took the time to write more than 3,700 personal condolence letters to the
families of the fallen -- often at home at night alone, over a TV dinner and a
drink. He often spoke to troops and said he loved them. The official said the
book could inadvertently make those troops question the judgment of the man who
had sent them into harm's way.
"Gates speaks movingly about his concern for the lives and morale of
our troops. Why then publish his opinion that Obama doesn't believe in the
strategy while they are still fighting?" asked the former official.
"I think people are universally stunned by the book
-- the White House, former colleagues, even reporters," said the official. "It
goes against Gates' entire persona while in government of being a discreet,
behind the scenes player. It comes off as petty score settling."
Staff writers John Hudson and Dan Lamothe contributed
to this report.
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