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Why Is Robert Gates Angry?

The former Defense Secretary: Indignant, effective, and often wrong.

The Blaze

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War By Robert M. Gates (Alfred A. Knopf)

During his many decades of government service, beginning all the way back in 1969 when he joined the CIA as a junior analyst covering the Soviet Union, Robert M. Gates developed a reputation as the quintessential bureaucrat—a gray, quiet, competent civil servant whose idea of a wild time was smoking a cigar while reading a policy memorandum. His favorite adage came courtesy of Will Rogers: never miss a good chance to shut up. Even his initial memoir, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Account of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, which appeared in 1996, three years after he stepped down as CIA director, was a buttoned-down work of history that caused few ripples.

It now seems that Gates’s placid exterior concealed strong emotions all along, or that he developed those emotions late in life. Heartfelt outpourings of deep feelings are on display in his new memoir of his service in the Bush and Obama administrations. After a lifetime of repressing his inner self and forging himself into a perfect functionary, Gates no longer seems to care what anyone thinks. With no desire for future government employment, he is letting his inner Hulk out for a roar.

Gates’s rage is particularly startling. It certainly pervades his book. By my count, the words “anger,” “angered,” “angry,” or “angrily” appear thirty-four times to describe his state of mind, sometimes preceded by intensifiers such as “extremely” or “really.” Two more times he is “upset.” Once he is “really pissed.” Ten times he is “furious” or “infuriated”; five times he is “outraged” or finds something to be “outrageous”; twice he is “seething”; six times he is “offended,” including once “exceptionally offended.” That amounts to at least sixty eruptions of bile in a 598-page account, or once every ten pages or so.

His expressions of love are less common but just as obviously sincere if somewhat less surprising. Gates notes how much he loves Texas A&M University, where he served as president from 2002 to 2006, before being summoned to Washington to become George W. Bush’s second and last secretary of defense. He accepted the post, in spite of his reluctance to return to public life, because “I love our country more and, like the many Aggies in uniform, am obligated to do my duty.” The longer he stayed in office, under both Bush and Obama, the more love he felt for the troops under his command. “Sometime in 2008,” he writes, “I began telling troops in the war zones and elsewhere that I felt a sense of responsibility for them as if they were my own sons and daughters. I did not exaggerate. Nothing moved me more than a simple ‘thanks’ from a soldier, and nothing made me madder than when I learned that one of them was being badly treated by his or her service or the Pentagon bureaucracy.”

To judge from the pages of his book, many of his expressions of outrage were indeed motivated by self-serving bureaucrats or members of Congress who, in his view, were holding up programs needed to support troops in combat—or by reporters who were publishing leaks that hurt morale. But not all of them. Many more outbursts were prompted by disagreements over his policy recommendations on such matters as Afghanistan, Libya, the defense budget, and senior military appointments. It is worth taking a closer look at the many antagonisms of Robert Gates to understand how he emerged as one of the most effective secretaries of defense ever, and also one of the most frustrated. His conflicts cast an important and interesting light on the two presidents he served, and on the two potential presidential contenders who served with him in the Obama Cabinet. The latter information, of course, helps to account for the news and controversy that this book has engendered, even if much of the attention has been slightly off-base.

So what is it that incensed Gates so much? His most consistent target is Congress, with which he has had a contentious relationship ever since he was first nominated to be CIA director in 1987—a nomination that was withdrawn because of Senate opposition due to his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He was finally confirmed for the CIA post in 1991, but with the unusually large number of thirty-one nay votes. As both CIA director and secretary of defense, Gates had ample opportunity to testify before Congress and he came away gagging from the experience. “Congress,” he concludes, “is best viewed from a distance—the farther the better—because up close it is truly ugly.”

Gates’s indictment of Congress is severe. “I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department for being inefficient and wasteful but would fight tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district no matter how inefficient or wasteful.” Moreover, “I was exceptionally offended by the constant adversarial, inquisition-like treatment of executive branch officials by too many members of Congress across the political spectrum—a kangaroo-court environment in hearings, especially when the press and television cameras were present.” Nor does Gates limit himself to generic attacks on Congress as an institution: he also offers barbs at individuals with whom he tangled. He accuses Nancy Pelosi of putting “partisan politics” above “fact and reality—not to mention the national interest” in her opposition to the Iraq surge. He makes fun of Harry Reid for contacting him “to urge that Defense invest in research on irritable bowel syndrome,” adding, “With two ongoing wars and all our budget and other issues, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Obviously all of his conflicts with Congress took a toll on him. After experiencing lawmakers’ “rude, insulting, belittling, bullying and all too often highly personal attacks,” he was tempted to tell a congressional committee (the italics are his): “I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else. Needless to say, the unflappable Gates never said anything remotely like that. In fact, lawmakers “almost always” treated him with “respect and civility”; and he returned the favor. 

As a result he was highly effective in his dealings with the legislative branch. In 2007, Gates worked assiduously and successfully to prevent Congress from prematurely pulling the plug on the surge in Iraq. Later he managed to prevent Congress from overriding his decisions to cancel weapons systems such as the F-22, the airborne laser, and the Army’s Future Combat System family of armored vehicles. I would guess that Gates’s contempt for Congress would come as news to most members who dealt with him—a sign of how, like a wily intelligence officer, he was effectively able to mask his true self to play a role that would enable him to accomplish his objective. This may in fact be a necessity for any successful political leader, whether appointed or elected.

Likewise, Gates’s exasperation at one press leak after another was ably camouflaged by his cordial relationship with reporters. He even lectured Naval Academy midshipmen that “the press is not the enemy, and to treat it as such is self-defeating.” That did not prevent him from erupting when he felt that the press crossed a line. He recounts an incident when the Associated Press ran a picture of a dying Marine in Afghanistan, his wounds “graphically portrayed,” over the objections of his family. The AP’s president refused to kill the photo, leading Gates to fume that “the AP was fresh out of common decency that day.” He adds, for good measure, “The AP’s insensitivity continues to rankle me.” It is to Gates’s credit that, in spite of his frequent exasperation, he did not make an enemy of the press or Congress—as his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, did.

The contrast between Gates and Rumsfeld is even more telling in their dealings with bureaucrats at the Department of Defense, both in and out of uniform. Both Rumsfeld and Gates thought of the bureaucracy as the “enemy,” but Gates had more success in disciplining underperforming generals and admirals without creating the kind of needless backlash that Rumsfeld generated. He provides a clue as to how he achieved this impressive feat when he notes that “I always treated senior officers respectfully.... I never shouted. I never belittled. I never intentionally embarrassed anyone.” This does not mean that he did not make his displeasure clear—he just did it in less grating and more effective fashion than the insufferable Rumsfeld did.

It is a sign of how little Rumsfeld achieved that Gates noted a major problem at his very first meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 13, 2006, while Rumsfeld was still in charge for a few more days: “I was struck in the meeting by the service chiefs’ seeming detachment from the wars we were in and their focus on future contingencies and stress on the force. Not one uttered a single sentence on the need for us to win in Iraq. It was my first glimpse of one of the biggest challenges I would face throughout my time as secretary—getting those whose offices were in the Pentagon to give priority to the overseas battlefields.”

Gates managed to puncture that air of apathy and to produce thousands of MRAP (mine resistant, ambush protected) vehicles on a crash schedule not seen since the industrial feats of World War II. Twenty-seven thousand mraps were ultimately rushed to Iraq and Afghanistan to protect troops from the pervasive threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), notwithstanding the opposition of the military services that thought they were a waste of money because they would not be useful in future conflicts. As Gates notes, “casualty rates in MRAPs were roughly 75 percent lower than they were in Humvees, and less than half those in Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and Stryker armored vehicles.” Later Gates performed a similar feat with ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) assets, “a mix of unmanned drones, propeller-driven reconnaissance aircraft, analysts, linguists, and data fusion capabilities that collected and fed critical battlefield information ... to military commanders, who could then act on it.” Once deployed, these ISR assets, like the MRAPs that Gates produced, foiled numerous attacks and saved the lives and limbs of many American soldiers.

When he found out that injured service members were getting shoddy treatment in the recuperative wards of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Gates was equally effective in fixing the problems. After the revelations first appeared in The Washington Post in February 2007, he refused to entertain any excuses from his senior officers. “This is unacceptable, and it will not continue,” he flatly declared, and he proceeded to fire not only the hospital commander but also the army’s top medical officer and the secretary of the army. The fact that Gates was willing to cashier such senior officials, rather than, as usual, scapegoating junior personnel, sent a message of accountability welcomed by the armed forces.

Interestingly enough, despite all the ire expressed by Gates at White House staffers and, to a lesser extent, at President Obama, he had nearly as much success overcoming opposition from that quarter as he did from the Pentagon—at least initially. Much of the publicity around Duty has focused on Gates’s critical comments about the incumbent administration, and it is indeed unusual for a Cabinet member of his stature to go public with his criticism while the president is still in office. But most of his disagreements were not with Obama, who, in an unprecedented move, asked Gates to stay on from one administration to the next, notwithstanding the change of party control. “Although Obama to my mind is a liberal Democrat and I consider myself a moderately conservative Republican,” Gates writes, “for the first two years, on national security matters, we largely saw eye to eye.”

This was because for the first couple of years that he was in office, Obama largely acceded to a centrist bloc of senior officials, which included not only Gates but also Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Adviser Jim Jones (a retired Marine four-star general), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Admiral Mike Mullen), and General David Petraeus (who moved from Central Command to Afghanistan to the CIA). At their urging, Obama agreed to slow down the troop withdrawal from Iraq and to accelerate the troop surge in Afghanistan. To be sure, Obama did not send as many troops as commanders in Afghanistan wanted (30,000, not 40,000) and he imposed a timeline on their employment (18 months) and a strict cap on the total number allowed into Afghanistan (101,000). These restrictions undermined the troops’ mission and were much criticized by many in the military, but they were supported by Gates, who was also initially ambivalent about the Iraq surge before turning into its fierce defender. He writes that “Obama was right in each of these decisions,” because they were necessary to maintain congressional and public support for the surge.

Where Gates did disagree with Obama, it was Gates who often took the dovish position, in no small part because of his concern for the troops’ well-being. He argued against sending a Special Operations team to kill Osama bin Laden and against using airpower to topple Muammar Qaddafi. While he did back an increased commitment in Afghanistan, Gates supported no new military deployments while in office. He admits now that his “obsession to protect” the troops “was clouding my judgment and diminishing my usefulness to the president,” although he does not spell out what policies he might have favored if he were not so focused on their well-being. His concern for the men and women under his command is understandable and laudable, but it may also have paralyzed strategic judgment. No matter how much they care about those they lead, great military commanders have always known that sometimes they have to endanger their troops to achieve a larger objective. One wonders if the issue is Gates’s own lack of combat service. (He served as a junior Air Force intelligence officer, based in Missouri, for a couple of years in the 1960s.) Those who have not exposed themselves to enemy fire are often reluctant to make others face that risk, although such compunctions did not stop great wartime leaders such as William Pitt the Younger, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt from doing what had to be done.

Of course Obama is not exactly a militarist himself: Gates fit in just fine with the president’s determination to reduce the use of American combat power. Until Obama and Gates broke over the defense budget in 2010—Gates wanted savings from canceled systems channeled back into new defense programs, whereas Obama insisted on banking the savings so as to use the money to fund domestic programs and pay down the debt—the two men were largely in sync. Gates praises Obama as “first-rate in both intellect and temperament,” and writes that “I never saw anyone who had not previously been an executive—and especially someone who had been a legislator—take so quickly and easily to making decisions and so relish exercising authority.”

Yet the process whereby Obama made decisions left Gates scarred. He writes that while both Bush and Obama made courageous decisions—the former on the Iraq surge, the latter on the Afghanistan surge—Bush had a better relationship with senior military officers: “Bush never (at least to my knowledge) questioned their motives or mistrusted them personally. Obama was respectful of senior officers and always heard them out, but he often disagreed with them and was deeply suspicious of their actions and recommendations. Bush seemed to enjoy the company of the senior military; I think Obama considered time spent with generals and admirals an obligation.” As the number-two civilian in the chain of command, Gates tried to mediate between the generals and the president, but not always successfully.

Gates is on stronger ground when complaining that Obama was distant not just from his generals but also from the wars he ordered them to fight. “One quality I missed in Obama was passion, especially when it came to the two wars,” Gates writes, noting that “the only military matter, apart from leaks, about which I ever sensed deep passion on his part was ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ ” He goes on to explain that the president’s reticence mattered most in Afghanistan: “When soldiers put their lives on the line, they need to know that the commander in chief who sent them in harm’s way believes in their mission. They need him to talk to them and to the country, not just to express gratitude for their service and sacrifice but also to explain and affirm why that sacrifice is necessary, why their fight is noble, why their cause is just, and why they must prevail.” He concludes damningly: “Obama never did that.”

Far from stumping in public for his Afghanistan strategy, which involved tripling the number of troops there, Obama seemed to lose faith in his own surge by 2011. Gates recalls thinking during an internal debate that year over how fast to bring the surge forces home: “The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him it’s all about getting out.” (Again the italics are Gates’s.) That is a damaging indictment, though it will hardly come as a revelation to anyone who has followed Obama’s halfhearted conduct of the war.

For all of Obama’s shortcomings as a wartime commander-in-chief, it is to his credit that he often rose above the bad advice of his subordinates: they are, next to Congress, the biggest targets of Gates’s well-earned ire. He complains that domestic political considerations loomed too large in White House calculations, owing mainly to the fact that “the White House staff—including the chiefs of staff, Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley; Valerie Jarrett; David Axelrod; Robert Gibbs; and others—would have a presence and a role in national security decision making that I had not previously experienced (but which, I’m sure, had precedents).” He was particularly exercised by the “micromanagement” of National Security Council staffers, such as the “war czar” Douglas Lute. “For an NSC staff member to call a four-star combatant commander or field commander would have been unthinkable when I worked at the White House and probably cause for dismissal,” he writes. “It became routine under Obama.”

Gates is more supportive of his fellow “principals”—the senior-most national security officials—with whom he was generally in accord on such as issues as “Iraq, Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, the Middle East.” There was one major exception: Joe Biden. Gates’s views on the vice president have already been widely quoted and for good reason: they are memorably caustic. Gates writes that, while “Joe is simply impossible not to like,” “he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” That may be an exaggeration, but only slightly. The essential validity of Gates’s judgment is confirmed by how strenuously Biden argued for a small counterterrorist troop presence in Afghanistan, which, in the judgment of most military experts, would not have been able to operate effectively in a country in imminent danger of falling to the Taliban. (If press reports are accurate, Biden continues his advocacy for such a tiny commando force to this day.)

On this issue, and many others, Gates found an unexpected and valuable ally in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom he did not know personally before joining the Obama Cabinet. He found her a pleasant surprise: “smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.” Of course Gates cannot resist dishing a critical anecdote, which has already been taken up by Hillary’s critics. He writes that “in strongly supporting a surge in Afghanistan, Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. She went on to say, ‘The Iraq surge worked.’ The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political.”

Gates labels these admissions “surprising” and “dismaying.” On one level, he is right. Domestic politics is not the best way to think about issues of war and peace. Yet his surprise at Clinton’s admission is itself surprising. What successful politician has ever failed to make some accommodations to electoral reality? Not Franklin Roosevelt, who hid his support for American entry into World War II until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Not Lyndon Johnson, who ran in 1964 as a peacemaker against the very hawkish Barry Goldwater and proceeded to escalate our involvement in the Vietnam war. And not Ronald Reagan, who wound up signing more tax increases than tax cuts during his years as governor and president. To say nothing of Clinton’s husband, who went from proposing a government-run health care program to proclaiming that the “era of big government is over.”

Hillary Clinton’s unwillingness to publicly support the surge in Iraq—which would have been political suicide in the Democratic primaries in 2008—should be seen in this light, as one of those unprincipled maneuvers that all successful politicians undertake from time to time. But even if this anecdote causes her heartburn, she actually emerges enhanced from the Gates narrative, because it is clear that in administration councils she was a principled voice for a strong stand on controversial issues, whether supporting the Afghan surge or the intervention in Libya. Later she urged arming the moderate opposition during the early days of the Syrian civil war—advice that, if Obama had taken it, might well have short-circuited the violent disintegration of Syria, which is far advanced today.

Aside from Clinton, one of the few figures to emerge enhanced from Gates’s book is George W. Bush. Prior to joining the Cabinet, Gates had little relationship with him, although he had long-standing ties with his father. He came away impressed, writing that he “had fewer issues with Bush” than with Obama. He notes that Bush “always seemed comfortable” with the decisions he made and he made them on the merits: “I don’t recall Bush ever discussing domestic politics—apart from congressional opposition—as a consideration in decisions he made during my time with him.” Admittedly Gates might have had a different view if he had served earlier in the Bush administration, although he notes that the widely held assumption that he opposed the invasion of Iraq was incorrect. If Clinton and Bush emerge enhanced, Obama emerges diminished, but only slightly. In Gates’s telling, Obama did a good job of keeping his administration’s anti-military tendencies in check, at least until after the success of the Osama bin Laden raid, which probably convinced the president (although Gates does not say so) that he was now impervious to criticism from the right on national security matters.

And what of Gates himself? Some have suggested that he betrayed the president by writing his book now, while Obama is still in office. If he had praised Obama, of course, these critics would not be complaining. The criticism of Gates’s timing would be a stronger argument if he were some fresh-faced young staffer looking to cash in on his tour in the White House. But Gates has earned the right to speak out after a lifetime in government service. He deserves credit for writing a memoir as straightforward and unvarnished as he is—and doing so without the aid of a ghostwriter. (At least no ghostwriters are credited.) His memoir is not always scintillating reading, but it must be read by anyone who cares about the making of foreign policy and national security policy in these dangerous times, and by anyone who is currently working in, or may someday work in, the national security bureaucracy, because it provides an invaluable behind-the-scenes peak at how one of the most effective defense secretaries of modern times operated. 

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present Day (Liveright).