War management

War management

Lead review

War management

In his fascinating memoir ‘Duty’, former US defense secretary Robert M Gates provides insights about decision making in both the Obama and Bush White Houses,writes Michiko Kakutani 


Robert M Gates gives us a forthright, impassioned, sometimes conflicted account of his four and a half years as defense secretary in his fascinating new memoir Duty, a book that is highly revealing about decision making in both the Obama and Bush White Houses.

Gates — who has won plaudits from both Republicans and Democrats over the years for his pragmatic, common-sense approach to his job — has a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history, was the director of CIA in the early ‘90s, and worked under eight presidents. His writing is informed not only by a keen sense of historical context, but also by a longtime Washington veteran’s understanding of how the levers of government work or fail to work.

Unlike many careful Washington memoirists, Gates speaks his mind on a host of issues, freely expressing his dismay with the micro-managerial zeal of White House national security aides, and his unfettered fury at a dysfunctional Congress. 

Some of his more detailed descriptions of debates within the administration over Afghanistan will be of interest mainly to Washington policy wonks. They can be read as Gates’ efforts to set the record straight or to take issue with accounts already in print, like in Bob Woodward’s 2010 book Obama’s Wars. But while his overall portraits of Barack Obama (“the most deliberative president I worked for”) and George W Bush (he “had strong convictions about certain issues, such as Iraq, and trying to persuade him otherwise was a fool’s errand”) are familiar enough, they are fleshed out with myriad, telling glimpses of the two men at work.

Gates — whose nickname in the Obama White House was Yoda — also gives us his shrewd take on a range of foreign policy matters, an understanding of his mission to reform the incoherent spending and procurement policies of the Pentagon, and a tactile sense of what it was like to be defense secretary during two wars.

Headlines have already been made by passages in this book relating to Obama’s stewardship of the war in Afghanistan. Gates writes that while he “never doubted Obama’s support for the troops,” he did question his support for their mission there. From early on, he writes, there was suspicion in the White House that the president was “getting the ‘bum’s rush’ from senior military officers” over the question of a troop increase in Afghanistan, and that that suspicion grew over time.

Such widely quoted bits of the book give the impression that as a whole it is less nuanced and measured than it actually is. In fact, Gates seems less intent on settling scores here than in trying candidly to lay out his feelings about his tenure at the Pentagon and his ambivalent, sometimes contradictory thoughts about the people he worked with.

He writes that he found Obama’s methodical approach to problem solving “refreshing and reassuring,” and commends his ability to make tough decisions “regardless of the domestic political consequences.” But he also talks about coming close to resigning, feeling “deeply uneasy with the Obama White House’s lack of appreciation — from the top down — of the uncertainties and inherent unpredictability of war.”

The Obama White House, Gates writes, was “by far the most centralised and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.” He adds that its “controlling nature” and “its determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the people in the cabinet departments — in the trenches — who had actually done the work, offended Hillary Clinton as much as it did me.”

Regarding the Bush administration, the most compelling parts of this book concern Iran and Gates’ worries about “the influence of the Israelis and the Saudis” on the White House, particularly Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and “their shared desire to have problems like Iran ‘taken care of’ while Bush was still president.” Gates repeatedly warned of the dangers of “looking for another war” when the US was already at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one point, he says, he was so worried that Bush might be persuaded by Vice President Dick Cheney and Olmert “to act or enable the Israelis to act” that he made an intense private call to Bush in which he argued “we must not make our vital interests in the entire Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia hostage to another nation’s decisions — no matter how close an ally.”

Gates is at his most emotional — and moving — in talking about his love for the men and women who serve in the military. “Signing the deployment orders, visiting hospitals, writing the condolence letters and attending the funerals at Arlington all were taking a growing emotional toll on me,” he writes near the end of this plain-spoken memoir. In retrospect, Gates says, his time as secretary of defense reinforced his “belief that in recent decades, American presidents, confronted with a tough problem abroad, have too often been too quick to reach for a gun — to use military force” even though “wars are a lot easier to get into than out of.” 

Duty: Memoirs of a secretary at war
Robert M Gates
Knof Publishing2013, pp 618 

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox