There are many things wrong with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' new book, starting with the title. He calls it: "Duty." It should have been called: "Bobby, We Hardly Knew Ye."
Indeed, all this time, we thought Gates was a quiet, thoughtful, loyal public servant. But, Bobby, we hardly knew ye! Once he ripped off his gentlemanly mask, we discovered that Gates is really a small-minded, petty and disloyal whiner.
Republican Gates, who served as CIA director under President George H.W. Bush, was first named secretary of defense in November 2006 by Bush 43, to replace Donald Rumsfeld. At President Barack Obama's request, he remained in the post for another two years, from 2009 to 2011. In his book, he makes it clear that he preferred the way George Bush and Dick Cheney governed, because they never asked any questions. When he walked into the Oval Office, they gave him everything he wanted, including two long, costly, bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and all the money he wanted for the Pentagon. Underscoring his idea of true "leadership," he praises George W. Bush for never giving the invasion of Iraq a second thought.
It was a different story when Barack Obama and Joe Biden moved in. They did ask questions, tough questions, about everything: Iraq, Afghanistan, the defense budget, new weapons systems and Don't Ask, Don't Tell. They challenged, criticized, and sometimes disagreed. In other words, Obama, with Biden's assistance, was fulfilling his constitutional responsibility as civilian commander in chief. The generals aren't always supposed to get their way. That's why our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution the way they did.
But Gates didn't like it. He wasn't used to having himself and his generals challenged, and he clearly resented it. He recounts that he got so angry sometimes he was ready to speak out and demand respect. But he never did. Several times, he says, he was also tempted to resign. But he didn't have the guts to do that either. Instead, he waited until he was out of office for two years and then wrote his self-serving memoir, full of unsubstantiated, and sometimes contradictory, attacks on Obama, Biden and the entire Obama national security team.
Early on, for example, Gates expresses his dismay at attending meetings with Obama in the Situation Room and hearing people criticize the policies of George W. Bush. Really? Surely, he didn't expect them to be Bush cheerleaders. He also slams Obama for having opposed Bush's troop surge in Iraq for "political reasons." When, in fact, as is well known, Obama opposed every facet of the Iraq war since he gave a speech against it as Illinois state senator in October 2002.
On Afghanistan, because Obama wrestled so long dealing with his request for more troops, Gates accuses the president of not supporting our mission in Afghanistan. Yet, after eight years in Afghanistan, Obama was not alone in questioning why we were still there -- and he did end up sending more troops. Gates, in fact, undercuts his own argument by admitting Obama's support for the troops and acknowledging, overall: "I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions." So where's the beef?
Gates reserves his harshest criticism for Vice President Joe Biden, whom he charges with "poisoning the well" against leaders of the Pentagon and whom he blames for being "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." What exactly did Gates disagree with? Biden's support for Israel? His personal intervention to end the violence in Bosnia and Kosovo? His support for the war in Afghanistan and, initially, the war in Iraq? Gates doesn't say. Maybe it's because, as Newsweek reported, Biden once told Gates we should be spending more money in Pakistan than Afghanistan.
What's ironic about the Gates memoir is that he blasts Obama for not respecting the military, when Gates himself fails the first test of the military: respecting and obeying the chain of command. Perhaps Gates forgot that he was not the president of the United States, but was instead working for the president.
To me, the most telling sentence in the book is an email Gates sent to a friend while serving as defense secretary: "People have no idea how much I detest this job." He made a mistake, taking the job. And Obama made a mistake, inviting a member of the enemy camp into his tent.
Write to columnist Bill Press at firstname.lastname@example.org.