Some autobiographies emerge from careful reflection, others from career calculation. Robert Gates’s “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” seems the result of a good, long seethe.
This is not to discount Gates’s compelling, sometimes self-critical, recounting of recent history — ample reason to read the book. But consider this judgment: “I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.”
So much for the legislative branch of the U.S. government.
Gates is an exceptionally competent, sober-minded public servant who has finally lost all patience with politics and politicians. Either he is in need of Xanax and a nap or something is very, very wrong with Washington.
It is Gates’s critique of the executive branch under President Obama that has naturally attracted the most attention. The national security staff, in Gates’s telling, is highly centralized and politicized. “Agreements with the Obama White House,” he concludes, “were good for only as long as they were politically convenient.” Vice President Biden matches bureaucratic tenacity with uniformly poor judgment. Obama is ambivalent about his own Afghan strategy, and his choices came across as “politically calculated.”
Some critics of Gates’s book have found this critique self-contradictory. Doesn’t Gates stipulate, on Afghanistan, that “Obama was right in each of these decisions”? Doesn’t he admit “a similar approach to dealing with national security issues”?
Actually, Gates’s portrait is particularly convincing and damaging precisely because he is not making an ideological critique. He is neither a disappointed realist nor a disillusioned idealist. Instead, he is raising questions about the quality of Obama’s leadership.
Gates was fated by history to be the implementer of military surges, first in Iraq under George W. Bush and then in Afghanistan. Obama ordered the Afghan surge — but if he ever had confidence in this strategy, he quickly lost it. This leads Gates to a conclusion that should forever be honored in the history of passive aggression: “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.” What possible comfort does this offer to the troops in Afghanistan, carrying out a mission that the president himself no longer supports?
The implication is clear. Gates supported the Afghan surge because he wanted success. Obama agreed to the surge, but his ultimate goal was to get out, whatever the outcome. This is how two men can agree on a policy while holding profoundly different views of military leadership.
Precisely because Gates shares “a similar approach to dealing with national security issues,” he does not make a broader critique of the real-world consequences of presidential ambivalence, particularly in the large zone of conflict running from North Africa to South Asia. Obama wants to be known, above all, as the ender of wars. But ending U.S. involvement does not end conflicts that have deep implications for American interests and security.
Whether attempting a pivot to Asia, or focusing on nation-building at home, the administration adopted a policy of all-purpose restraint in the Middle East. After Obama pledged to “maintain sufficient forces in the region to target al-Qaeda within Iraq,” U.S. troops departed without a status-of-forces agreement or an adequate plan to oppose resurgent radicalism. In Syria, Obama called for Bashar al-Assad to go without seriously aiding U.S.-affiliated rebels. In Afghanistan, the United States appears to be elbowing for the exits. The New York Times recently referred to “a post-American Middle East.”
And what does a post-American Middle East look like? Iraq in crisis. Syria in ruins. Al-Qaeda establishing havens across 400 miles of both countries — havens that could become launching pads. Our proxies in Syria crushed. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah ascendant. Disillusioned allies freelancing their own approaches. The United States is left with a strategy of devils’ deals. Assad can apparently keep his throne of skulls if he gives up chemical weapons and engages in alternate forms of mass killing. Maybe Iran will not only stop its 19,000 centrifuges but also help us in Syria.
This is not to argue that any solutions are easy or obvious, or that new military interventions are good options; it is only to note that “restraint” in helping proxies and allies can actually be indecision and paralysis, creating vacuums that Russia, Iran or al-Qaeda are pleased to fill. And this is a larger problem for the Obama administration than a rogue memoir.