Book Review: Deliberations of war under Bush, Obama

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJanuary 12, 2014 

  • ‘DUTY: MEMOIRS OF A SECRETARY AT WAR’ by Robert M. Gates; Alfred A. Knopf ($35)

Robert M. Gates gives us a forthright, impassioned, sometimes conflicted account of his 4 1/2 years as defense secretary in his fascinating new memoir “Duty,” a book that is highly revealing about decision making in both the Obama and Bush White Houses.

Gates — who has won plaudits from both Republicans and Democrats over the years for his pragmatic, common-sense approach to his job — was the director of the CIA in the early ’90s and worked under eight presidents. His writing is informed not only by a keen sense of historical context, but also by a longtime Washington veteran’s understanding of how the levers of government work or fail to work.

Unlike many careful Washington memoirists, Gates speaks his mind on a host of issues, freely expressing his dismay with the micro-managerial zeal of White House national security aides and his unfettered fury at a dysfunctional Congress. The majority of it, he says, is “uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities,” “hypocritical, egotistical” and eager to put “self (and re-election) before country.”

Gates also gives us his shrewd take on a range of foreign policy matters, an understanding of his mission to reform the incoherent spending and procurement policies of the Pentagon, and a tactile sense of what it was like to be defense secretary during two wars. (For security reasons, he traveled to Iraq inside “a sort of large silver Airstream trailer” placed in the hold of a military cargo plane, which, he says, felt “a lot like being FedExed halfway around the world.”)

Headlines have already been made by passages in this book relating to Obama’s stewardship of the war in Afghanistan. Gates writes that while he “never doubted Obama’s support for the troops,” he did question his support for their mission there. From early on, he writes, there was suspicion in the White House that the president was “getting the ‘bum’s rush’ from senior military officers” over the question of a troop increase in Afghanistan, and that that suspicion grew over time.

Such widely quoted bits of the book — now being dissected on TV — give the impression that as a whole it is less nuanced and measured than it actually is. In fact, Gates seems less intent on settling scores here than in trying candidly to lay out his feelings about his tenure at the Pentagon and his ambivalent, sometimes contradictory thoughts about the people he worked with.

Gates is at his most emotional in talking about his love for the men and women who serve in the military.

“Signing the deployment orders, visiting hospitals, writing the condolence letters and attending the funerals at Arlington all were taking a growing emotional toll on me,” he writes near the end of this plain-spoken memoir. “Even thinking about the troops, I would lose my composure with increasing frequency. I realized I was beginning to regard protecting them — avoiding their sacrifice — as my highest priority. And I knew that this loss of objectivity meant it was time to leave.”

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