How Washington Broke Robert Gates

What seems most to have disturbed Gates – and the trauma he tries to reconcile and exorcise in his memoir – is the pettiness of the fights and dysfunction in Washington when so much was at stake.

With his Sphinx-like demeanor and penchant for playing his cards close to his chest, there was always something of Chauncey Gardner in former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ public persona. Like the gardener whose simple life lessons from tilling the soil propelled him to the top echelon of the Washington elite in the movie “Being There,” the 70-year-old Gates projected the understated pragmatism of a Cold War realist, and his mid-western common sense seemed to come from a different place and time that allowed him to transcend partisan politics and ably serve very different Republican and Democratic administrations in a time of war. However, as Gates reveals in his new book “Duty: Memoir of a Secretary at War,” beneath the quiet exterior was a complex man of seething frustrations and keen observations. Even if they reflect mostly what we already know about Washington and its power players, those observations are unlikely to bring comfort to his former bosses and colleagues. To wit:

Obama Conflicted About Afghan War

Gates witnessed firsthand how deeply conflicted President Barack Obama and his inner circle in the White House were about an Afghan war that was going south when Obama entered the Oval Office and worsened throughout his first year in office. The result was a commander-in-chief who sounded an uncertain trumpet, something that rankled Gates’ vision of wartime leadership.

“President Obama simply wanted to end the `bad war’ in Iraq and limit the U.S. role in the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan,” Gates writes at one point. “His fundamental problem in Afghanistan was that his political and philosophical preferences for winding down the U.S. role conflicted with his own pro-war public rhetoric (especially during the 2008 campaign), [and] the nearly unanimous recommendations of his senior civilian and military advisers in the Departments of State and Defense.”

Certainly Obama painted himself into a corner with his tough (and largely accurate) campaign rhetoric criticizing the Bush administration for under resourcing and largely ignoring the war in Afghanistan. It’s also true that compared to George W. Bush’s steadfast commitment to the Iraq troop “surge” of 2007-8, which Bush 43 rightly saw as a last chance to salvage his legacy from a lost war, Obama’s Hamlet-like hand-wringing in 2009-2010 struck Gates as weak leadership.

To add a bit of context, however, shortly after entering the Oval Office in early 2009 Obama essentially took ownership of the conflict by “surging” 21,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan. With the situation nevertheless continuing to deteriorate throughout the year, even Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the National Security Council’s point man on Afghanistan and Iraq, and another holdover from the Bush administration, was skeptical of a deeper U.S. troop commitment. So too was former Lt. General Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. Ditto for Vice President Joe Biden and much of Obama’s inner-circle of political aides.

Bush the Decider, with Blinders

As a lifelong Republican, Gates seemed more comfortable with Bush than Obama. He notes that Bush had an easier affinity for the uniformed military, again, not surprising for a Republican former fighter pilot in the National Guard from Texas, as compared to a former Democrat community organizer from Chicago. In an especially revealing section of an often contradictory memoir, however, Gates himself notes the very different political dynamic and strategic calculations between the last two years of the Bush administration, and the first two years of Obama’s tenure.

“Clearly I had fewer issues with Bush. Partly that is because I worked for him in the last years of his presidency when, with the exception of the Iraq surge, nearly all the big national security decisions had been made. He had made his historical bed and would have to lie in it.” By contrast, Gates notes that Obama was an inexperienced president trying to change course in two wars, with an eye on re-election. “Domestic political considerations would therefore be a factor, though I believe never a decisive one, in virtually every major national security problem we tackled.”

For all of Bush’s decisiveness during Gates’ tenure as his secretary of Defense, Gates also notes that the “decider” never questioned his original decision to invade Iraq, a strategic blunder of historic proportions, nor admitted the opportunity costs it exacted on the Afghan campaign. “President Bush always detested the notion, but our later challenges in Afghanistan—especially the return of the Taliban in force by the time I reported for duty—were, I believe, significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq,” Gates writes.

Distrust Between White House and U.S. Military Leaders

Gates is especially pointed in his criticism of the White House for the distrust that came to infect the relationship between the Obama team and senior U.S. military leaders. He singles out Biden for “poisoning the well” against military leadership, and former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and then-Lt. Gen. Doug Lute for “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.” Gates nearly storms out of the Oval Office in anger after Donilon questioned the competency of a U.S. general over what the White House felt was a slow response to the earthquake disaster in Haiti. “It took every bit of my self-discipline to stay seated on the sofa.”

Obama comes in for his own blast of criticism when he warns then-Afghan commander General David Petraeus, who publicly differed with his commander-in-chief over an already established timetable for pulling surge troops out of Afghanistan. When Obama warned Petraeus and other generals in a March 2011 meeting against “gaming him” by contradicting him to the press or slow-rolling the troop withdrawal, Gates was furious. “As I sat there I thought, the president doesn’t trust his commander…doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” Gates writes. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Again a little context is helpful. The sense of aloofness and distrust between the White House and senior military leaders that Gates refers to in 2011 was real and well known, but it had an antecedent. During the tortured months in 2009 when the Obama administration was just getting its sea legs and trying to formulate an Afghan strategy, someone leaked to the press that senior commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal thought that between 30,000 to 40,000 additional troops were needed at a minimum. Not without reason, the White House thought that U.S. military leaders were trying to box the president into a corner by publicly announcing desired troop levels in advance of the president’s own strategy, gaming the process in a way that put pressure on the president to ante up more troops. Gates admits that he too was surprised by McChrystal’s troop requests.

White House Micromanagement

Gates is hardly alone among cabinet officials in the Obama administration to complain about the White House’s micromanagement. Gates objects when Vice President Biden and NSA Donilon tried to order him around (“The last time I checked, neither of you are in the chain-of-command”); feels betrayed by Obama’s decision to abruptly end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays serving opening in the military while a review was still underway (“I felt that agreements with the White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient”); and bristles when National Security Council staff bypassed his office and reached out to senior military leaders directly (“Don’t give White House staff…too much information on military operations,” Gates advises his flag officers, “They don’t understand it.”) Obama’s White House, Gates writes, “was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.”

The Obama White House’s instinct for gathering close the reigns of policy, and particularly national security policy, is a reflection of Obama’s character, and his wonkish confidence in the righteousness of his own policy analysis. This is a president, after all, that rejected the advice of virtually all of his top national security, foreign affairs and intelligence advisers in deciding not to arm the Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and thus to let Syria’s civil war take its own course. It’s also true that in the age of the “imperial presidency” and in a time of war or crisis, commanders-in-chief have been known to jealously guard the levers of power, especially presidents who do not altogether trust their top military commanders. There’s plenty of antecedents for that as well, whether it’s John F. Kennedy managing the Cuban missile crisis out of the White House, or Lyndon Johnson bragging that “I won’t let those Air Force generals bomb the smallest outhouse without checking with me” during the Vietnam War.

Partisan Politics and Congressional Dysfunction

As a Cold War realist with decades of government service, Gates is perhaps most appalled at the swamp of modern Washington politics, and that too is telling. He is aghast when both President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton admit in a private meeting that their opposition to the 2007 Iraq “surge” was driven in part by the politics of facing each other in the presidential primaries. Never mind that neither of their votes was pivotal. “To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying,” Gates writes.

Gates reserves his most withering criticism for Congress, whose theater of abuse he calls “truly ugly.” His sense of outrage spills off the page in a torrent of disdain. “I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities…micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country,” Gates writes. “I also bristled at what’s become of congressional hearings, where rude, insulting, belittling, bullying and all too often highly personal attacks on witnesses by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior.”

By the end of the memoir Gates, arguably the ablest Secretary of Defense of the post-World War II era, seems almost broken by the demands of waging war burdened by the dysfunction of modern Washington. Not only did he have to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda and spend his evenings writing personal letters to the families of fallen American troops, Gates writes, but he also had to battle bureaucratic inertia at the Pentagon, surmount internal politics in both administrations, avoid the “partisan abyss” in Congress, and resist the micromanagement of the Obama White House.

“Over time, the broad dysfunction of today’s Washington wore me down,” Gates concedes, “especially as I tried to maintain a public posture of nonpartisan calm, reason and conciliation.”

Having taken the Pentagon’s helm in the midst of what he calls a “category five shit storm” that the United States endured 2007-2012, when the nation was in danger of losing not one but two wars, Gates helped stave off ignoble defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s a worthy legacy. In the midst of that tempest the old Cold War warrior and realist often seemed like the adult supervision in whatever room he was in. What seems most to have disturbed Gates – and the trauma he tries to reconcile and exorcise in this memoir – is the pettiness of the fights and dysfunction in Washington when so much was at stake, and in comparison to the selfless sacrifices on the part of U.S. troops in combat. That dichotomy continues to haunt many who observed it firsthand.

James Kitfield has written on foreign policy and national security issues from Washington, D.C. for over two decades as a contributing editor and former senior correspondent for National Journal, publishing hundreds of magazine features and web stories and reporting from dozens of countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa. His reporting has won numerous awards, including three Gerald R. Ford Awards for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense; five Distinguished Reporting Awards from the Military Reporters and Editors Association and Medill School of Journalism; and a National Press Club Award for Diplomatic Correspondence.

Image: White House/Flickr.