Off duty Gates takes shots, acknowledges own mistakes in new book

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“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War”

by Robert Gates. Knopf, 2014. $35

In 1993, in the heyday of the best-selling Tom Clancy spy novels, Bob Gates gave a speech on foreign policy at LSU. He answered several more serious questions, but I had to ask: Are you Jack Ryan?

The audience laughed, and he had a slight smile that suggested he knew more than he was letting on, and gently demurred that he was the model for the novels’ hero.

He added, very seriously, that nothing in the novels — “nothing,” he repeated for emphasis — matched what he had seen first-hand at the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 2006, Gates was catapulted by President George W. Bush out of the post-government presidency of Texas A&M to succeed the embattled Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, while two wars hung in the balance.

“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” fills today’s headlines because of Gates’ disparagement of politicians of all stripes, including Barack Obama, the second president he served during his almost five years at Defense.

If Gates was the model for Jack Ryan, the real-life SecDef far outdoes the fictional spy in withering disdain for elected officials. “With each visit,” Gates said of front-line trips to see the troops, “I grew increasingly impatient and angry as I compared their selflessness and sacrifice with the self-promotion and selfishness of power-hungry politicians and others — in Baghdad, Kabul and Washington.”

In fact, Baghdad and Kabul politicians come off better than the “venality” of Washington. “I would listen with growing outrage as hypocritical and obtuse American senators made all these demands of Iraqi legislators and yet themselves could not even pass budgets or appropriations bills, not to mention deal with tough challenges like the budget deficit, Social Security and entitlement reform,” Gates recounted of one day among hundreds. “The discipline required to keep my mouth shut left me exhausted at the end of every hearing.”

They didn’t get better. Similar episodes fill the book, and have fueled the headlines: If Harry Reid was on the phone, the Nevada senator was interested in his state’s military bases. If Mitch McConnell was calling, it was about a base in Kentucky.

All along, from the touching stories about the troops’ sacrifices to the semi-riots at Capitol Hill hearings on the bitterly contested Iraq war, the reader can be left with the impression that only Bob Gates had the national interest at heart, or cared about the troops.

That McConnell’s constituents, or Reid’s, want their senators concerned about jobs in their states was a daily affront to a Mandarin of the foreign policy class, the only man in Washington aware there was a war on.

When Gates, rarely, acknowledges a thoughtful discussion with a politician, it is usually because it was in private and he describes unflatteringly the same people offering partisan shows in public.

There are some big exceptions across party lines.

He barely knew Hillary Clinton before she became secretary of state, but quickly found that his unfavorable impression was wrong about “a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.” That sort of comment does not make headlines, but others on both sides of the aisle draw praise often enough, including both Bush and Obama.

The surge of troops that stabilized the Iraq war situation was Bush’s tough decision. The bin Laden raid in Pakistan was a close call for Obama, “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”

The self-righteousness is mellowed by Gates’ recognition of his own errors. In the 1980s, he stood in the hills of Pakistan looking into Afghanistan, where CIA was arming Islamist rebels against the Soviets. In 2007, he was in Afghanistan, looking at the Pakistan hills from whence our former friends waged war against us. It’s enough to make anyone think twice about foreign wars.

This should not be a book that you don’t pick up because the headlines have made you feel you’ve already read it. This book is perhaps as successful at its genre as anybody’s, and a far better read than most; it merits comparison with Dean Acheson’s “Present at the Creation” from 1969.

Humorous stories about politicians and foreign leaders and self-deprecating little anecdotes grace the pages. Parts of the book are almost a manual about how government really works, or doesn’t.

Gates’ views of America in the world deserve more attention than the offense taken by some parochial senators. He inherited two wars and achieved what can be generously construed as success in both.

Nevertheless, as often as he says he worried about them, Gates views the godforsaken deserts of Iraq and the bleak hills of Afghanistan as worthy of the blood sacrifice of young Americans.

Even as he acknowledges the British and Soviet failures in Afghanistan, no proconsul of old ever so fully embraces “global strategy and “regional stability” or other such imperial justifications. Old-fashioned “realism” in foreign policy is the faith behind the man and the book.