'Duty' by Robert Gates: Petulant potshots

Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton all get slammed in the new memoir from the former defense secretary. But the figure hurt the most by this whiny tell-all is the author.
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Bob Gates talks about his experience as Secretary of Defense in "Duty."

Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton all get slammed in the new memoir from the former defense secretary. But the figure hurt the most by this whiny tell-all is the author.

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, once semi-retired on a farm near Mount Vernon — and a one-time UW commencement speaker — has set off a bombshell with his new  memoir, "Duty," to be officially released next week.
Gates, now heading the Boy Scouts, served in various national-security roles for American presidents of both political parties. He was known for his discretion, conceded to be the most professional and able member of President Obama's first-term Cabinet. The last person one would have expected to vent his frustrations in print so soon after leaving government service, hitting President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Council staff and the U.S. Congress with verbal body blows.  
Reading through the book's already released excerpts, you can see that Gates, throughout his service in the Obama Administration, was a man barely restraining his frustrations and decidedly not enjoying the Defense Secretary job he said at the time he truly liked.
Among Gates' complaints?
Although sometimes praising them on other counts, he faults Obama, Clinton and the NSC staff for their obsession with domestic political considerations in the conduct of national security/foreign policy. Gates expresses shock that Obama and Clinton admitted in his presence that as Senators (in 2007) their positions on Iraq policy were driven by their competition for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.   
Gates dismisses Joe Biden, former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,  as a meddler, enemy of the military and consistently wrong, over decades, on just about every international issue.
He alleges that Obama's White House and NSC staff were the most intrusive and political since the days of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.  He faults the president, in particular, for ordering a "surge" in Afghanistan — which led to American casualties — while really wanting a withdrawal. It was clear, writes Gates, that Obama distrusted the senior military commanders he himself had chosen. Gates also faults Obama for embarrassing the military brass and making hostile comments toward them in official meetings.
He characterizes the Congress as a collection of dopes, self servers and posturers and describes how, in giving congressional testimony, he could barely restrain his impulses to get up and walk out of the room.
The released excerpts portray a man, Gates, who was outwardly composed but often raging beneath the surface.
My own reaction to the book:  It no doubt will be a best seller and yield big royalties and lecture fees for Gates. But, one suspects, that Gates may come to regret disclosing previously-classified information and venting so forcefully so soon after leaving a position of such high trust.
His principal charges will come as no surprise to those who have followed policy these past five years, making his reaction to them seem a bit over wrought. One is reminded of actor Claude Rains' famous statement in the movie "Casablanca":  "Gambling in Casablanca?  I am shocked, shocked!"
We knew that Obama, on entering the presidency, was conflicted about the U.S. role in Afghanistan. His lengthy policy review, at the outset of his administration, resulted in his approval of a Pentagon-recommended surge strategy there.  But the surge clearly was seen as a short-term means to achieve stability while, at the same time, planning for later withdrawal. (My view: The U.S. interest would have been better served if the president had ordered a withdrawal at the time of the policy review.)
We also knew that Obama, relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs, would want to be sure that the Defense and State departments and the CIA were not freelancing, but instead following his policy guidelines. National Security Council staffs, historically, have kept watch accordingly. Gates would have us believe that such NSC interventions were not only a nuisance, but perhaps dishonorable.

Obama's NSC staff has, admittedly. been populated by less than world-class figures. Nonetheless, it has been their job to be sure departments and agencies are pursuing the president's policies. I served in two Democratic administrations in which this was the case and have observed others of both parties doing the very same.
On to Joe Biden. Is he really a meddler and wrong on everything?

The White House has issued a formal statement, following release of the Gates excerpts, praising the vice president for his statesmanship. Truth is, Biden is breezy, political and no policy intellectual. But he has not been wrong on everything and is, at least, the intellectual equal of prior Vice Presidents and vice-presidential candidates, including John Nance Garner, Alben Barkley, Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, Geraldine Ferraro, John Edwards and Sarah Palin. Biden was put on Obama's political ticket not because of his statesmanship but because he could relate well to Middle Atlantic-state ethnic voters with doubts about Obama.
As to Gates' opinion of the Congress: Hey, Executive-branch officials, especially those dealing with national security and foreign policy, have disliked congressional oversight and show-and-tell hearings throughout the history of the Republic. Some of our elected representatives, indeed, are posturers, dumb and pains in the butt. But they also fulfill a vital Constitutional role. At critical times they often have intervened to question dubious foreign interventions, abuses of executive-branch power and misbegotten policies and practices. Gates knows this. It's surprising that, after years of service, he would unload on lawmakers.   
Gates seems to have written his book at a time when he was tired, burned out and unburdening himself of frustrations that had accumulated over his long stretch in the public saddle. Obama, Clinton, Biden and others the former defense secretary blasts will no doubt be hurt marginally by Gates' disclosures. But the person most damaged will be Gates. At the end of a long and distinguished career, he comes off as a score-settler and a complainer about matters of far less significance than he attaches to them.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.