• Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Knopf, 2103, 618 pages, $35.
RALEIGH — One of Robert Gates’ favorite sayings is “Never miss a chance to shut up,” but the former secretary of Defense, the first to be retained by a newly elected president, remained aware of the need to speak out.
The first surge of response to Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War focused on long-evident realities. Vice President Joe Biden has, in Gates’ view, been “wrong on every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” And no surprise that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton based their opposition to the surge in Iraq on domestic political considerations. Other observations, however, have drawn less attention than they deserved.
Gates, a Republican, finds the president “first-rate in both intellect and temperament,” and quick to make decisions. Gates had been a hardliner on the Soviet Union and Obama said, “I’m no peacenik.” In the early going, the two saw “eye to eye” on national security issues. On the other hand, Obama did not exactly get misty about the plight of U.S. troops, reserving his passion for repealing the Clinton policy toward gay soldiers of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Presidents normally express gratitude to soldiers for service, and explain why their cause is just and why they need to prevail. “President Obama never did that,” Gates says. Further, “troops risking their lives need to be told that their goal is to ‘defeat’ those trying to kill them. But such terms were viewed in the White House as borderline insubordinate political statements.”
Gates describes the Obama White House as “by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.” Unlike other presidents, Obama framed decisions as “orders.” At the urging of Biden, Obama gave an “order” on the operations of the campaign in Afghanistan, an “unnecessary and insulting” mandate that demonstrated “the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture.”
At Ford Hood, Texas, in 2009, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 and wounded more than 30. Gates wonders “why Hasan’s expression of extremist views had drawn little scrutiny.” Actually, military and civilian authorities knew of Hasan’s deadly designs but did nothing to stop him. Gates said the president “spoke eloquently” at the memorial service, but that is a stretch. Obama wondered what could motivate anyone to do such a thing. Hasan had answered that by yelling “Allah is great!” as he gunned down Americans. The Defense Department construed Hasan’s murder spree as “workplace violence,” but Gates offers no comment on that absurdity.
Gates deals with the “Arab Spring” and efforts to oust Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, but avoided the September 11, 2012 terrorist attack on Benghazi that claimed the life of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The Obama administration parroted the jihadist propaganda that the attack was part of a movie protest. While Benghazi did not happen on Gates’ watch, it deserved comment from Obama’s former Secretary of Defense.
On other themes, Gates tells it like it is. Evo Morales of Bolivia is “a virulently anti-American leftist.” President Roh Moo-hyun of S. Korea was “decidedly anti-American and probably a little crazy.” On the domestic side, numerous members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee were “rude, nasty, and stupid.” In one hearing, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Va., behaved “like an evangelical tent preacher,” allowing leftist Code Pink ladies to chant anti-war slogans with impunity.
Gates outlines his “strong partnership” with Hillary Clinton, but does not assess her performance as secretary of State during and after the Benghazi attack. Duty does not speculate on Hillary’s fitness for the presidency, the office she definitely seeks. Duty does cover enough ground on Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflicts to keep readers occupied for a long time. Those who aspire to higher office would do well to heed the lessons Robert Gates learned as secretary of Defense.
“Not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression, or every crisis can or should elicit an American military response,” he says, because “wars are a lot easier to get in than get out of.” In the early 21st century, “crises don’t come and go — they all seem to come and stay.” Gates laments the huge costs of the Iraq war, which resulted in “significant strengthening of Iran’s position in the region.” In Afghanistan, he wonders “why are people fighting over this godforsaken place?” That should resonate with soldiers, civilians, and politicians alike.
Other lessons emerge from the “bureaucratic wars,” he notes. “In a place as big as the Defense Department, something is always going wrong.” For example, a B-52 left Minot Air Force base in North Dakota with six air-launched cruise missiles, all nuclear armed. The B-52 landed at the Barksdale base in Louisiana with no security measures whatsoever. Likewise, a shipment of batteries to Taiwan actually contained four nose cones for Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles. Gates twice recounts these cases and says such mistakes “can quicken your pulse.”
Big bureaucracies, Gates says, not only go wrong but also “rarely come up with significant new ideas.” As Duty,/i> emerges, the current administration in Washington is expanding bureaucracy and hailing a command approach to the economy and social policy. Americans are told that this portends good government and prosperity, with no fiscal fallout or collateral damage. That likely will turn out as wrong as Joe Biden has been on foreign policy and national security issues.
Lloyd Billinglsey is a contributor to Carolina Journal.