While many members of the foreign-policy establishment are surprised and dismayed about the premature, self-serving, one-sided, and often contradictory statements in former defense secretary Robert Gates’ memoir, close analysis of his career reveals that the establishment should not have been surprised. Gates has always wanted to have it both ways, often been wrong on major issues, been prone to exaggerate his own reputation, demean others, and avoid blame for his own mistakes.
As I pointed out in these pages about three years ago, Gates’ actions as Secretary of Defense never matched his own rhetoric, as Gates has taken both sides of many issues. In 2010, Gates warned about the need to reduce defense spending, but asked Congress to increase the defense budget in real terms during every year of his tenure as Secretary of Defense. That same year, Gates questioned the need for eleven carrier battle groups, but said that the US couldn’t afford to eliminate even one carrier. He supported increased funding for the State Department, but rejected shifting any funding from the massive defense budget to Foggy Bottom. Gates had also recommended that President Bush and President Obama send an additional one hundred thousand troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and then said that any commander who sends ground troops into central Asia should “have his head examined,” in a 2011 speech at West Point.
Gates’ contradictory positions on so many issues make his criticisms of Obama on Afghanistan especially galling. In his book, Gates criticizes Obama’s actions on Afghanistan, but then says that he supports all of the decisions the President made. This is very thin support indeed, as Gates’s book threatens to undermine the morale of the troops in Afghanistan by claiming that Obama’s heart is not in the war. Moreover, by asserting that Obama “can’t stand” Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Gates has actively undermined current efforts to reach an agreement to leave American troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014. Gates also allowed the situation in Afghanistan to deteriorate under his watch as Secretary of Defense. As Rajiv Chandrasekaran documents in Little America, the Marines and the Army each had their own separate war plans and generals were dispatching troops to the wrong places. Yet Gates, who admits it was a misguided decision to allow the Marines to maintain their autonomy in Helmand while the Army operated in Kandahar, did nothing.
Gates also claims that Obama did not respect the military, and yet he himself had no problem throwing Generals Pace and McKiernan under the bus.
In 2007, Gates refused to give Marine Corps General Peter Pace the normal two extensions as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claiming that he anticipated difficulties with the confirmation process. But Gates’ and Pace’s staffs knew the real reason. In late 2006, General Pace had gotten the other Chiefs of Staff to support President Bush’s surge of troops in Iraq. This surge was highly unpopular with the Congress after the after the 2006 election. However, after failing to support General Pace, Gates later not only supported the surge but took credit for its claims of success.
Shortly after Gates took over as Secretary of Defense, he appointed General McKiernan to head the war in Afghanistan. When General McKiernan got to Afghanistan in 2008, he realized that the situation in the country was dire and asked for more troops. Gates denied his request and told General McKiernan not to go public with it. When Obama attempted to deal with the deteriorating situation by sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan in early 2009, Gates blamed McKiernan for the problems in Afghanistan and fired him.
Gates also derides Vice President Biden for being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy issue for the past 40 years.” This criticism is rich coming from a career intelligence officer and supposedly top-notch Kremlinologist who was wrong about the most important question in the Cold War—whether President Reagan should work with Gorbachev to end the conflict. Gates was opposed to working with Gorbachev, arguing that Gorbachev’s apparent openness to reform was a Soviet stratagem. Gates also argued that the Soviets would never leave Afghanistan and, more recently, that we should not send in special operations forces to capture bin Laden.
In his own career, Gates has always prioritized himself, not his country. During his confirmation hearing as the Director of the CIA in 1991, a former National Intelligence Council vice chairman, Harold D. Ford, testified that during his tenure as Deputy Director of the CIA Gates had transgressed professional boundaries. His 1987 nomination as Director of the CIA was withdrawn due to the controversy about Gates’ role in the Iran-Contra Scandal. The final report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra matters concluded that while the evidence did not warrant indicting Gates, he was “close to many figures who played significant roles in the Iran-Contra affair and was in a position to have known about the activities.” Gates himself had earlier advocated that the US should initiate a bombing campaign against Nicaragua and do everything in its power to remove the Sandinista government from power.
Even Gates’ reasons for leaving the Presidency of Texas A&M and taking the job as Secretary of Defense in the first place are somewhat hypocritical. In February 2005, Gates was offered the position of Director of National Intelligence while serving as President of Texas A&M. Gates tentatively accepted the job out of a “sense of duty,” but changed his mind because he had “nothing to look forward to in D.C.” Moreover, he committed to remain as President of Texas A&M another three and a half years, i.e. through the summer of 2008. Yet 18 months later, in November 2006, he accepted the job of Secretary of Defense and left Texas A&M, again out of a “sense of duty.” Left unexplained is that the DNI is a job with little power and prestige, unlike the much more influential job of Secretary of Defense.
If Gates were the elder statesman that the foreign-policy establishment believes he is, he would have at least waited until Obama left office and an agreement with Afghanistan had been worked out before releasing his book. All of his predecessors, including Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush’s first Secretary of Defense, have managed to exercise this restraint. Also, he would have focused on strategic and management issues in the Pentagon, like Harold Brown, who served as Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Defense did, not penning a kiss-and-tell diatribe. Finally, if Gates was were so upset at particular discussions that he wanted to resign, he should have. The resignation of a sitting Secretary of Defense would have helped the country have the debates Gates felt that we needed to have. By staying on and holding his fire for his memoir, Gates may sell lots of books, but he will not help his country.
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.