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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And towards the one professional who stayed on, retired lieutenant general Douglas Lute, Gates is not merely hard but uncharacteristically harsh. Lute, whom Gates had persuaded to abandon a promising military career in order to serve as Bush’s deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, was a Gates ally during 2007-08. Having seen Lute up close, I can add that few public servants gave more of themselves, more honestly and faithfully, than Lute, though Gates rages against him for attempting to micromanage the war in Afghanistan. Gates, who clearly wishes not to lash President Obama too severely, is thus reverting to the classic trope of blaming the king’s evil counselors, when it is much more likely that the National Security Council staff behaved as it did because that was the way Obama wanted it. 

And, indeed, Gates’s argument along these lines often slips, such as when he admits that Obama came into office mistrusting the military, making no effort to get to know them and always suspecting them of boxing him in. In return, Gates talks of “White House double-crosses,” breaches of faith, and a president “who doesn’t trust his commander .  .  . doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.” When Gates, or anyone else, speaks of the Obama White House, one has to remember that the White House is merely a building: The people in it are either doing what the president wants or what they think the president wants. And responsibility rests squarely with the commander in chief himself. If Gates damns anyone here, it is President Obama, whether he wishes to or not.

Which raises the question of why Gates published Duty now. Here, again, there are two Robert Gateses. There is the one who is outraged when the president makes a sour remark about those attending a meeting taking notes for their memoirs. And there is the one who, in fact, writes the memoir, and publishes it while the president is still in office. The publication of this memoir now is a breach of faith and a violation of propriety that is hard to understand. If Gates believes that Obama is a disastrous president, surely he should have published this book in 2012, when it might have influenced the presidential election. If he is merely (and appropriately) contributing to our understanding of history, he should have waited until Obama leaves office. If he thinks he can change the president’s modus operandi and worldview by publishing it now, he is deluding himself.

Gates’s strategic views are similarly conflicted. He acknowledges that the 2007 Israeli strike on a North Korean-built nuclear reactor in Syria was a tactical success and a strategic achievement for the Israelis, if not for the United States. But he remains outraged that they took such action against a mortal enemy seeking to acquire the most lethal of weapons. When Iranian crowds took to the streets to oppose the regime in 2009, Gates sided with the ever-cautious CIA analysts and State Department officials who said that speaking out would only make the regime worse. He admits, in retrospect, that his view was wrong—and at odds with American values. He advocated a strategy in Afghanistan that formally renounced nation-building while building up a powerful Afghan Army to defeat, or at least reduce to marginal importance, the Taliban. And yet he bemoans the lack of civilian contribution to the Afghan war while failing to explain how to build a strong and enduring military with a wreck of a civilian government behind it.

To dwell on these contradictions, however, would be to fail to acknowledge Gates’s great contribution and supreme gifts. For if Gates was neither organizer of victory nor master strategist, he was a superb administrator who took charge of a dysfunctional Pentagon. He saw that the Defense Department, most definitely including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in thrall to a “damnable peacetime mindset.” Soldiers might have begun wearing camouflage uniforms to work after 9/11—a comfortable but absurd practice, since none are likely to seek cover behind shrubbery or rocks in the Pentagon cafeterias—but peacetime practices and priorities persisted. Through a herculean effort, Gates forced the system to build and ship tens of thousands of purpose-built armored cars (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs) to Iraq and Afghanistan. Until then, the procurement bureaucracy had tinkered with armor of various kinds for the venerable Humvee, itself not much more than a souped-up version of the World War II Jeep. No amount of armor was really adequate for a vehicle that was not designed to handle mines bursting beneath it. Shame on the bureaucrats for failing to get the MRAP, or something like it, to the field in 2004 rather than in 2007—and everlasting credit to Gates for ramming it through. He saved American lives by the hundreds. 

Gates was a strong and steady hand at the Pentagon, but nothing became him so much as his willingness to hold senior officers and officials accountable by dismissing them from office. Whether it was due to scandalous treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed or mishandled nuclear weapons in the Air Force, Gates had no trouble firing generals or service secretaries. When Admiral Fox Fallon, whom Gates had appointed and liked, began criticizing what he believed to be elements in the administration looking for conflict with Iran, Gates gave him the axe. And, most impressively, he decided that he had to fire a good guy who had done nothing wrong—General David McKiernan, the American commander in Afghanistan—because, Gates concluded, McKiernan simply was not up to the job of waging that war. (In doing so, Gates discovered that it was the first case, since Korea, of a general being fired for not being up to a combat command—and to his credit, Gates did it the only decent way a boss should: in person.)

This curious memoir is many things: a contribution to the historical record, an interesting reflection on leadership at the top, and an unnerving warning about the personalities that will dominate American national security decision-making for three more years. It does not always reflect as well on its author as he might have wished, but that is because he is more honest than most memoirists. 

The title is well chosen. Whether or not he enjoyed being secretary of defense (he insists that he did not), it is abundantly clear that Robert Gates did not seek the position and accepted it reluctantly but unquestioningly for the reason explained in the title: duty. He discharged his responsibilities with energy, efficiency, honesty, and intelligence. His job was not to build a military for the next two decades but to keep the war effort together. In that, he succeeded, and he deserves the country’s thanks for it. He deserves, as well, some understanding of the psychic toll those accomplishments took on a man who ends his memoir by contemplating his eventual burial in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Eliot A. Cohen, counselor of the Department of State during 2007-08, is the author of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.