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Robert M. Gates’s “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” is the type of memoir that the Washington press corps savors. It is vivid, colloquial, and seemingly straight-from-the shoulder, which easily lends itself to reportage.
The memoir is also self-serving, duplicitous, arrogant, and even venal, but understanding this requires the kind of analysis that the mainstream media too often abhors.
The mean-spirited and angry memoir indicates that Gates realized that he had become an outlier in the Obama administration–just as Vice President Dick Cheney had become an outlier in the Bush administration. In the last year of his administration, President George W. Bush ignored the importuning of his vice president on the use of military force in Iran and Syria as well as on the pardoning of his aide, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. In Gates’ last year as secretary of defense, President Obama was no longer taking Gates’ recommendations on Afghanistan, Libya, the raid against Osama bin Laden, the insubordination of General Stanley McChrystal, or the timing for ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Gates’ greatest anger is with Vice President Joe Biden for trying to coach the president on dealing with the military and for criticizing the ineptitude of the Bush administration on major policy issues.
Gates is most resourceful in laundering his own credentials, referring to the fact that he “witnessed” the Iran-Contra disaster in 1986-1987. In fact, he had to withdraw from the confirmation process for director of central intelligence in 1987 because Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee David Boren told him that the committee simply didn’t believe his denials of any prior knowledge of Iran-Contra. Two of my former CIA colleagues, including Gates’ own deputy, Richard Kerr, had briefed him on the sale of missiles to Iran and the diversion of profits to the Contras. The “case officer” for Iran-Contra, Marine Colonel Oliver North, briefed Gates on the Swiss bank accounts where the money for the Contras had been kept. Senator Boren even called Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating Iran-Contra, to make sure that Gates would not be indicted. Walsh “doubted Gates’ veracity,” but said he would “probably not” be indicted. He warned Boren, however, that there were still troubling areas suggesting Gates had falsely denied knowledge of North’s Contra-support activities.
Several years later, Gates was again nominated to be director of central intelligence, but survived a very contentious confirmation process that set a record at the time for the number of votes against confirmation. The opposition to Gates galvanized over his politicization of intelligence regarding the Soviet Union, Central America, and Southwest Asia. This time around, the nominee, known for his incredible memory, testified 33 times that he had no recollection of facts regarding Iran-Contra.
Once again, Gates’s effort to craft his own legacy falls victim to the huge gap between his rhetoric and his actions. Gates claimed to want a debate on defense spending, occasionally referring to wasteful and unnecessary weapons systems, but dodged the issue when appearing before Congress. He consistently lobbied the Congress for modernization of key systems, including nuclear systems, as well as for regional missile defense. Gates takes credit for introducing the idea of a regional missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic to “better defend the United States against Iranian ballistic missiles,” which made no strategic sense whatsoever. According to the Pentagon’s Selected Acquisition Reports (SARs), moreover, the number of weapons programs increased under Secretary Gates, and nearly all of the so-called savings in the defense budget were shifted to other programs as the defense budget increased in his last two years at the Pentagon.
Gates contradicted himself over and over again. He asked the annual Navy League convention in 2010 why the Navy needed eleven carrier battle groups, garnering headlines in the mainstream media. But he gave an emphatic “no” in congressional testimony on the possibility of eliminating even one carrier group. Gates may have been the first secretary of defense to acknowledge publicly that the United States was spending too much on the military and needed to spend more on diplomacy, but he gave a blunt “no” to the idea of transferring funds from the Defense Department to the State Department. He loved to cite the fact that there were more members of military bands than there were Foreign Service Officers, but he wasn’t willing to do anything about it.
Gates disingenuously emphasized that defense spending did not contribute to the deficit and should not be part of any deficit-reduction program. He told the American Enterprise Institute in 2011 that “we’re not going to see a return to Cold War defense budgets.” Months before he announced his retirement, Gates told close colleagues that he was leaving Washington because he couldn’t “imagine being part of a smaller military that would go to fewer places and do fewer things.”
The fact is that the United States currently is spending far more on defense than it did during the worst days of the Cold War. Defense spending climbed from $350 billion to $680 billion during his five-year tenure as secretary of defense. Indeed, a return to Cold War spending would save the United States around $100 billion annually. As defense strategist Anthony Cordesman noted, “Gates never came to grips with the challenge of tying strategy to force plans and procurement plans or shaping U.S. deployment to available resources.”
The venal aspect of the memoir is reflected in the free pass that Gates gives to President George W. Bush and the excessive criticism he aims at President Obama and Vice President Biden. Gates cannot criticize the Bush family because he is a creation of Poppa Bush, who made Gates the director of central intelligence in 1991 and the director of the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M in 1999, which led directly to Gates becoming president of the university in 2002. Bush Junior, of course, made Gates the secretary of defense in 2006. Gates does not even criticize the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which is the most important factor in the acceleration of sectarian conflict throughout the region and the formation of a Shia alliance between Iran and Iraq that harms U.S. national security. In this way, Gates is able to apply whitewash to the legacy of George W. Bush as well as to himself.
There is meanness in the gratuitous criticism of Vice President Biden, who voted against his confirmation as CIA director in 1991 and told President Obama that he was getting the “bum’s rush from the military” on Afghanistan. He labeled Biden “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” In fact, Gates and Biden were together on many issues, including U.S. policy in the wake of the Arab Spring and the Osama bin Laden raid. Gates even concludes his memoir with the view that “on issue after issue…the president, the vice president…and I were usually on the same page.” As is often the case with Gates, it is not easy to distinguish which version of his contradictory statements he actually believes.
More significantly, it is Gates who has been wrong about so many intelligence and policy issues, including all of the central policy and intelligence issues of the 1980s dealing with Soviet-American relations and Mikhail Gorbachev. Even worse, and the reason he was so strongly criticized in 1991, is that Gates used intimidation to make sure that the CIA was wrong as well.
Finally, there is irony in the fact that Gates’ greatest achievement as secretary of defense was arguably his role in advancing the mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle–but that it was none other than Senator Biden who introduced the successful amendment to provide additional funding for the MRAP more than a month before Gates’s decision.
If the MRAP was his greatest success, then Gates’ greatest failure as secretary of defense was not mitigating the dangerous suspicion between the Obama White House and the Pentagon. Time and again, the Pentagon’s senior leaders, particularly Admiral Mike Mullen and Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, made public comments or leaked controversial statements that were designed to force greater military deployments to Afghanistan, when it was clear that the president was wisely looking for a way out. Gates’ unwillingness to accept that policy toward Afghanistan had changed in the White House led him to lead his own campaign to “win” a war that simply isn’t winnable.
As a result of his frustration over Afghan decision-making, Gates makes the ugly assertion that President Obama does not have his heart in the Afghan war, which can only have a devastating impact on the troops to whom Gates has dedicated his book. Similarly, his charge that the president “can’t stand” Afghan President Hamid Karzai adds one more irritant to the conclusion of a status-of-forces agreement with Kabul. Gates’ defiance of the president included dragging his heels on ending the cynical policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and allowing senior general officers to campaign publicly for a significant expansion of U.S. forces long before any decision was actually made. In instructing one of his senior generals to tell a senior member of the National Security Council to “go to hell,” Gates was demeaning the Obama White House.
There is no more important task in political governance than making sure that civilian control of the military is not compromised and the military remains subordinate to political authority. Unfortunately, President Obama initially demonstrated too much deference to the military, even retaining the Bush administration’s secretary of defense as his own, and appointing too many general officers to key civilian positions such as national security adviser and intelligence tsar. Gates’ memoir is a slap in the face of his former commander in chief. It also reflects a notable ignorance of the dangerous imbalance in civilian-military influence that is more threatening to the interests of the United States over the long-term than developments in a strategic backwater like Afghanistan.
Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the recently published National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers) and the forthcoming “The Path to Dissent: The Story of a CIA Whistleblower” (City Lights Publisher). Goodman is a former CIA analyst and a professor of international relations at the National War College.