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An angry book. He’s at war with everybody, including, I suspect, himself.
on 9 July 2014
“I cannot afford the luxury of sentiment, mine must be cold logic. Sentiment is for others” Bob Gates includes this quote on the last page of ‘Duty’. Does it sound like a private comment from Obama? Bush 41? Its actually a quote from George Marshall, who every US Sec of State and Defence rightfully holds in awe ( well, when I say every, I haven’t read Rumsfeld’s memoir yet, but I suspect even Rumsfeld must).
Gates was asked by George W (referred to as Bush 43) in 2006 to pick up the pieces following Rumsfeld’s resignation. The pieces being two wars, only going disastrously, one gradually worsening. He had been head of the CIA during Bush 41’s time, and a senior official in both NSC and CIA in the Regan/Bush cabinets. His reason to take on Secretary of Defence in 2006 was ‘if he soldiers are doing their duty, so must I”. HE finds that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have no appetite for the wars, and he gets really angry trying to focus the Pentagon on ‘winning the wars we are in’. This translates in each area of the defence forces being reluctant to divert funds from long-term programs to more immediate priorities eg. The accelerated procurement of mine-protected transport vehicles. Some part of the joint chiefs attitude may have been formed by Rumsfeld’s ‘ you go to war with the army that you’ve got”, and their curiously disengaged attitudes might have been influenced by his (described in Bradley Grahams’ By His Own Rules’)
Gates gives the Bush 43 administration a pass on internal bickering, though he does say that by the time Gates arrived that neither 43 or Cheney were up for re-election, and that most of the policy decisions had been set. However his description of 43’s thinking on the Iraq surge, shows 43 in a good light, Cheney comes across less devious, less argumentative than in other books’; though no less conservative and aggressive (in policy terms). I liked Gates’ take on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 – basically how did the CIA miss it (a huge issue, curiously ignored by main media); opposed to using US military to destroy it without first using diplomacy; and opposed to allowing Israel carte-blanch to destroy it. In the end Gates feels that 43 gave Israel a tacit green light, by not opposing their plans strongly enough.
Gates was asked to stay by Obama, and while never overtly disloyal to Obama, he is very critical of the infighting and micromanagement in the White House. Leaks about, Gates criticises named NSC staffers as leaking to Bob Woodward (in Obamas Wars) and fostering deep distrust between the Pentagon and the White House. This isn’t helped by the many speeches which the joint chiefs and army commanders give, some of which express opinions at odds with policy. Obama is portrayed as very deliberative, not invested in the Iraq or Afghan policies, and very concerned about US political reactions. Gates does praise his decision on Osama bin Laden; Gates likes Hilary and disagrees with everything Joe Biden says (though curiously he acknowledges Joe’s warmth).
Congress gets the worst of Gates’ anger however, he is openly derisive of their knowledge their professionalism, their attention span, their motivations. He describes how one Congressman holds up funds for the new mine-proof vehicle because of the proposal to divert funds from Humvee (the jeep the new vehicle was to replace). He is scathing in comparing the US congress’s inability to pass budgets with its complaints about the dysfunctional Iraqi and Afghan legislatures.
In the end, with all these frustrations, he tells Obama that he ‘has run out of juice’ and hands over to Leon Panetta, a savvy politico, influential in congress and with the President. He feels that his concern for the troops, his responsibility for putting them in harm’s way, weighs increasingly heavily on him and disrupts his ability to do his job with objectivity and discipline. I think there’s a fair measure of self-awareness here. I think the quote from Marshall quoted at the top of this review is instructive, Marshall is a latter-day saint, instrumental in toppling Fascism and rescuing Western Europe from Communism, and, by implication, allowing time for Western Democratic Capitalism to outpace Communism. But his methods were effective i.e. ruthless when necessary. In a very brutal sense US casualties in both wars were in the low thousands – low enough that Gates could write personally to the families of the fallen – infinitesimal in comparison with other wars the US has fought. If you thought the purpose of the wars was sufficiently achievable and worthy, it would be possible to see the sacrifice as necessary. I strikes me that Gates came to view the sacrifice as unnecessary. Not just that the politicians were fickle - Marshall suffered direct political attack (‘Who lost China?’) and even Eisenhower did not stand up for him – not just the Defence administration was inefficient and wasteful, but I think the base problem for Gates is that neither he, nor the Joint Chiefs believed in the Mission. And there’s not much discussion of this in the book – if the mission was to deny terrorists a base of operations, their potential bases had spread to Yemen and North Africa; If it was to install democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would take decades and billions of dollars. I think Gates was tormented by the job he inherited – make some sense of the wars the US was engaged in, save face and get out. In the end, I think, this mission proved so contradictory – if we were only there to find an exit, how did you face the families of the fallen soldiers who died while the country waited to get out?
I was not surprised that the pentagon nearly defeated him, I didn’t think his experience in running organisations (CIA, Texas A&M) was sufficient executive experience to run a huge organisation. I was also surprised with the almost complete lack of analysis of the US defence posture in the book – almost nothing on China, just how difficult the PLA are to deal with, including how they surprise their own politicians. What it the US mission in the world ? What is its Defence posture? Will it limit itself to keeping sea-lanes open, and try to dominate Space and Cyber ? These are huge tasks in themselves, for a guy steeped in geo-political analysis I was surprise this was absent from his description of his work at the Pentagon.