The Magazine

Man at War

A defense chief straddles two worlds.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By ELIOT A. COHEN
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That truth has not changed and will not, so long as countries wage war. It is up to leaders to recognize this truth, and to so manage their own internal equilibrium that the recognition of it does not overwhelm or disable them. There has been a good deal written about post-traumatic stress on the front lines; there is a similar phenomenon at the top of the military and civilian hierarchies, and, unwittingly, this memoir reveals a good deal of it.

Gates served two presidents well. His account of the later years of the George W. Bush administration is unremarkable and uncontroversial. He disagreed with the president on some things, but admired his determination and grit, recognized his intelligence, and, broadly speaking, accepted the tenets of his policy. This included, interestingly enough, an appreciation for the necessary role of ideals and values in foreign policy. Gates may have once worked for Brent Scowcroft, one of the most realpolitik of American statesmen, but he is more in the mainstream of thinking about American foreign policy. He had great regard for his colleagues, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley, as well as his own immediate staff at the Pentagon.

Gates’s relationship with President Obama and his administration was far more fraught. He agreed to stay on—although one suspects he did so less reluctantly than he made out at the time, or even than he remembers. To most of those around him in the Bush administration, he seemed to be enjoying a job at which he was very good. But despite some compliments to Obama for having care in making decisions, intelligence, a cool head, and some level of personal concern for the troops, Gates is scathing about the president’s lack of interest in the wars in which he was engaged. Obama, in Gates’s telling, cared passionately about the suppression of military leaks and repealing the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy—and that was it. For the rest, Obama was “deeply suspicious of [senior officers’] actions and recommendations,” and considered time spent with them merely a necessary chore. 

More than one mother sent a son or daughter off to Iraq or Afghanistan doubting the wisdom of the conflict but drawing some comfort from the knowledge that President Bush was determined to win. It is hard to imagine the feelings of a parent doing the same when the commander in chief, by Gates’s reckoning, really did not care about winning: “When soldiers put their lives on the line, they need to know that the commander-in-chief who sent them in harm’s way believes in their mission.” Obama, Gates makes quite clear, did not, and he was not about to pretend that he did. 

Gates acknowledges Obama’s courtesy to him, seeming at times to wish to soften what follows. For if the picture of Obama is, at best, ambivalent, the portrayal of the denizens of the White House who surrounded the president is almost unremittingly negative. Vice President Joseph Biden is, in so many words, an amiable (and, at times, not so amiable) fool who belligerently tells the generals that they “should consider the president’s decision as an order,” as if they were likely to view it as a suggestion. The White House staff are, in Gates’s view, a bunch of hacks and amateurs whose only concern is domestic politics. Indeed, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama admitted to each other that their despised predecessor’s Iraq surge really worked and that their refusal to acknowledge as much, and their own opposition to it, reflected mere political calculations.

The new team came to power as contemptuous of their predecessors as they were ignorant of the realities of war, though profound believers in “the power of Obama’s rhetoric.” The National Security Council staff felt free to run around their boss, retired Marine general James Jones, to the dismay of Gates, a former deputy national security adviser in the best-run NSC ever, that of President George H. W. Bush. And Obama did not do much to correct matters. He would join his team in their Situation Room bull sessions devoted to heaping scorn on the Bush administration, ill-informed and unprofessional behavior that caused Gates to wonder whether it had occurred to any of these wisecracking novices that they were being offensive to him and to Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had played a large role in conceiving and implementing those policies