Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Robert M. Gates
ISBN: 978-0307959478
A Review by Marc A. Sorel

To call Robert Gates, former US Secretary of Defense, a modern Cincinnatus is to draw an imperfect comparison. Unlike the Roman called from his farm to serve as the empire’s dictator for 16 days before relinquishing power upon completion of his mission, Gates did not serve in his nation’s highest office. But both men answered their leaders’ call to serve out of a sense of civic duty to unwind a security challenge to the state – for Cincinnatus, a mission to free a consul and his army pinned in a valley near Algidus; for Gates, to oversee the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates also wrote a book about his service.

The result, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, is more than a rough first draft of the history he witnessed or a laundry list of duties performed as secretary of defense to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As a former Air Force lieutenant, CIA analyst, National Security Council staffer, director of the CIA, fifth-longest serving defense secretary, the first secretary in more than a century to serve presidents of different parties, and the first to do so while promulgating two wars, Gates’ memoir offers a glimpse into the strengths, weaknesses and nature of the US national security policymaking process.

Gates concedes he was not always successful. He points to the failure to shut Guantanamo as a disappointment. His accomplishments include shuttering 30 military spending programs deemed superfluous.

Gates claims he waged “wars” as secretary – against the Pentagon, the White House, Congress, as well as against enemies abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere – and therein lies the book’s greatest, albeit semantic, weakness. Framing contentious interactions with the bureaucracy under the same umbrella term as the campaigns he helped lead in the Middle East and South Asia dilutes the meaning of the concept. Although ”war” aptly describes the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and at times even the Congressional hearing room as a useful lens for understanding just how bitterly partisan Washington has become, the device wears thin at times. Having published this memoir during Obama’s final term, Gates cannot provide the detail and drama of exchanges inside the White House Situation Room where cabinet members debate matters of US national security, which would have lent credibility to his descriptions of interactions with players as being more warlike than not.

From the outset, the order of importance for the real wars is clear – Iraq first, Afghanistan second. Gates says as much in his opening speech to his staff, and confirms as much toward the end of the book, as his last “battle” is fought over the timing of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The first Principals meeting of the National Security Council that Gates attends is on Iraq. The Afghanistan meeting comes days later. Perhaps more telling is the placement of each country’s namesake chapter in his memoir: Iraq is second, Afghanistan 10th.

Gates spends few pages comparing the two countries, perhaps because they are so different, as nations and focal points of American military engagement. While both countries have populations of approximately 32 million, Iraq has seven times the GDP per capita of Afghanistan; a conflicted but relatively less complex set of ethnic and religious divisions  among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds; geopolitical position among US allies Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and foes Iran and Syria; access to some of the world’s largest national oil reserves; no multinational military presence to share the load; and an accelerated timeline for US withdrawal.

It is through the lens of Iraq and Afghanistan that most of Gates’ other “wars” are fought, yet rendered with an even-handed perspective. Reviewers who fixated on Gates’ negative feedback regarding Obama and his administration’s treatment of the military leadership overlooked Gates’ balanced recounting of civil and military performance alike. On the one hand, Gates observes military commanders who are either inadequate to the task or too far out in front of the White House via the media, and must be relieved. Gates expresses deep reservations with the latter phenomenon, a recent trend he observes and whose logic he questions. On the other is a presidency that Gates felt often mismanaged its relations with military leaders by not trusting them enough: The peak of this distrust for Gates comes in the Situation Room, where President Obama “orders” action from his generals, a move that in terms of its explicitness, signaled lack of trust and, as Gates suggests, without precedent in his time in government. Although commander in chief, the US president typically does not tell his senior military staff that he is ordering them to act, as Gates says Obama does in this episode. Similarly, Gates expresses dismay at Obama’s denial of the Iraq surge’s efficacy on the campaign trail for political reasons and even goes as far as to observe that Obama did not appear to have confidence in his own Afghanistan strategy. Later in the book, however, Gates credits Obama for executing the Abbottabad raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

Perhaps the most interesting “war” recounted in the book is one not explicitly mentioned that Gates wages with himself over Iraq and Afghanistan, both in terms of his mindset and resolve to stay in his position. The history of US foreign policy since World War II is partly one of decision makers viewing their current situation through a prism of past experiences that are often ill-suited to the task. In Vietnam, it was the appeasement of Munich. For the Gulf War, it was the desire not to repeat the lessons of Vietnam. And for Libya, it was the desire of certain decision makers not to be seen standing on the sidelines nearly 20 years after the Rwandan genocide. Gates’ ghosts, he freely admits, come from his time with the CIA in Afghanistan. Yet remarkably, he recounts how he is not beholden to that experience, ultimately letting the logic of General Stan McChrystal and others shape his support of the surge, which upon reflection he credits as one of Obama’s many “right” decisions on the war. Yet as Gates proceeds in his tenure, he is aware about how his duty to the troops has put his prioritization of US national security objectives at risk, a risk highlighted at one point when he reflexively states that working with the corrupt Ahmed Wali Karzai was preferable to negotiating with the Taliban if it meant a safer environment for US troops in Afghanistan.

On Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates is at his best when framing what’s at stake for the US going forward. Gates analogizes the US departure from Afghanistan to the US exit from Vietnam under then President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, an analogy notable not just for the choice, but for its implications. Gates points out that Nixon and Kissinger offset their retreat from Vietnam with an opening to Russia and China. Such an offset was available in the Cold War where conflict ebbed and flowed between proxies, but opportunities for reconciliation among principal nation states remained. Gates wonders aloud what could be the US opening this time – a nuclear deal with Iran?  Israeli-Palestinian peace? As Obama pledges to take a more personal role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the question is a good one, if disconcerting.

Less than two years after the end of US combat operations in Iraq, with US withdrawal from Afghanistan imminent, the outlook for both countries remains uncertain. The black flag has risen again in Fallujah, years after Marines suffered severe casualties to capture the city in November 2004, even as the country has capitalized on its oil reserves and development efforts to restore its economy. In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has delayed completion of a forces agreement with the US as he jockeys for position with an armed and resurgent Taliban and US-Pakistani relations continue to flounder. As with Gates’ service at the Department of Defense, the consequences of US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan are best assessed generationally. Hopefully Gates will not deprive us of his wisdom several years from now – on war and politics – when distance might yield insights even deeper than those captured in this tome.

Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale