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.