Dueling reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post and lots of competing snippets on Twitter are trying to spin the new memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates into a set of political talking points. That’s understandable, but it’s not the best way to understand what Gates is getting at. This is a complicated book by a complicated man, and trying to condense its message to pro- or anti-Obama talking points won’t get readers all that far.
So far as I can make out, Gates’s views about the two Administrations in which he served are fairly straightforward. He thinks that George W. Bush, under the influence of Cheney and Rumsfeld, made some significant blunders in his first term, but found his feet in the second and grew in office. He thinks that Barack Obama made some good decisions in the early years of his first term, but gradually came under the influence of some less than adequate advisors (Biden and various members of the White House staff) as his Administration went on. On top of that, he thinks that too many Pentagon bureaucrats are time-serving weasels who would rather fight petty bureaucratic games than save soldiers’ lives, and he thinks that elected officials in general and members of the legislative branch in particular are often contemptibly selfish, lazy, parochial and short-sighted.
While disagreeing at the time with friends and associates like Brent Scowcroft, who opposed the Iraq War in public at a time that Gates, then out of government, supported it, Gates nevertheless belongs to the tradition of moderate Republican realism that Scowcroft represents. These people rarely run for public office and often find career politicians distasteful, but they believe, deeply, in public service, and are mostly found in appointive offices in the executive branch. Though the breed shows a tendency to degenerate over time, by and large they cling more closely to the personal and ethical standards of earlier WASP generations influenced by high New England ethics in a way that our current political culture does its best to escape.
In Gates’s view, he was able to work with both Bush and Obama because at the time they appointed him both men were committed for the most part to the kind of foreign policy he supports. In Special Providence, I called this strain of thinking Hamiltonianism and American Realism. It is less zero-sum than the continental realism that sees history condemned to endless and amoral struggle between powers, but it does not embrace liberal ideas about the perfectibility of human nature or the imminent dawn of universal goodwill. It is frank in valuing the importance of American state power, but also understands and respects the need for that power to be exercised as far as possible in some kind of cooperation with others. Without swallowing liberal Kool-Aid about the chances for some kind of world government, this school of thought values international institutions and respects the tissue of diplomacy and custom as ways, though imperfect, of advancing distinctive American interests. It would not be trammeled by those institutions on vital matters or bamboozled by their pretensions, but neither would it flaunt its contempt for them.
Bush’s deviations from this approach were concentrated in his first term, when his response to 9/11, and especially his concerns about Iraq, led him into both policies and rhetoric that many old school Republicans deplored. But with experience, and with the break-up of the Cheney-Rumsfeld alliance that drove a lot of first term Bush foreign policy, Bush moved closer to what Gates would consider the mainstream of American thinking. In helping Bush deal with the legacy of his first term, principally a war in Iraq that was going poorly, Gates felt he was taking on an important and valuable mission at a time of great public need, and that, whatever problems might have existed in the first term, President Bush was trying to get himself and the country out of the ditch in his second. Gates was able to offer President Bush full support in that task and he had the satisfaction of seeing the President follow his counsel more often than not.
Given all this, it is not surprising that Gates downplays any critique of first term Bush policy and centers his mild and respectful criticism of it on secondary figures—the king’s advisors, not the king. Left unstated is the obvious point that kings choose their counselors and choose which ones to heed.
Gates was able to accept an appointment from President Obama and offer loyal service to him for two reasons. First, Gates’s tradition of public service values putting patriotism ahead of partisanship in that quaint, old fashioned way, especially in time of great need and, above all, in war. With the country still involved in two wars, and with Gates as the man on the job in the Defense Department better placed than anyone else in the country to manage our behemoth of a Pentagon at war, Gates felt that President-elect Obama’s request that he serve was one he could not ignore.
Second, in his conversations with President Obama, Gates came to believe that, whether through conviction or expediency, President Obama was committed by and large to a Hamiltonian approach to America’s foreign engagements. He would robustly defend the country’s vital interests and on the whole stick to a middle course between the Scylla of rugged Jacksonian unilateralism and the Charybdis of Wilsonion unicorn hunts. Over time, his confidence in President Obama’s commitment to this approach appears to have waned. Perhaps more accurately, he came to feel that it was expediency rather than conviction that made Obama a Hamiltonian, and that as the political situation changed, the President began to move away from what Gates sees as the vital center of American foreign policy.
Again, being a gentleman, Gates does not rail at the President like a fishwife or a blogger. Scheming, micro-managing, disingenuous, over-reaching and strategically incompetent White House staff members are the enemy, rather than the President who appointed them and, over time, heeded their counsel. An imperial Vice President without wisdom or judgment darkened counsel. Over time, the atmosphere became less and less congenial to Gates. In their face-to-face meetings the President makes commitments; the staff breaks those commitments and the President doesn’t respond.
Gates’s harshest observation of both Secretary Clinton (whom in general he seems to have found quite congenial and who sided with him on most policy issues) and President Obama is that at times they confessed, or by their actions revealed, that their decisions and public positions on matters of national security were shaped by political rather than policy considerations. In particular, Gates reports both the Secretary and the President as having said that their public opposition to the surge in Iraq (a deeply unpopular policy, one must not forget, that Secretary Gates supported and helped to push through despite the cynical opposition of tub thumping politicians) was motivated by concern for their political fortunes.
Beyond that, Gates’s dawning suspicion that President Obama chose his Afghanistan surge (a position, again, that Gates backed, including President Obama’s controversial decision to issue a time limit on the surge’s duration) for political rather than policy reasons, and that he either never believed it would work or soon lost confidence in it, was a bitter blow. For someone from Gates’s world of high public service, and entrusted as he was with responsibility for the well-being of the troops sent into harm’s way on presidential orders, the suspicion that President Obama was sending troops to Afghanistan for political rather than policy reasons must have felt like a profound betrayal. Gates does not say much about his feelings about the President, but he is surprisingly candid about his intense feelings for the young men and women sent in harm’s way by a President who, apparently, didn’t think their sacrifices would achieve the military task to which they were assigned. Over time, that feeling became more intense, as Gates came to believe that the man ultimately responsible for their orders didn’t believe in the orders he gave.
The anger and sense of betrayal seem to have driven Gates both to write his memoir and to release it when the President and his former colleagues are still in office. It is not something George Marshall would have done.
Gates’s dedication to ideals of loyalty, public service, and non-partisan pursuit of the national interest speak for themselves, and if modern Americans in some ways have moved far from their ancestral values, the indictment of President Obama’s war policy in this book will resonate among many.
Yet those judgments need to be hedged. Machiavelli lives. Politicians must sometimes make decisions that Puritans deplore. That is not only true in international affairs, where Gates himself would well understand the need for occasional deviations from the straight and narrow in the Game of Thrones, but in domestic politics as well. Machiavelli spent as much time advising his Prince how to seize and hold power at home as he did advising him on dealing with powers abroad, and someone trying to make a political as opposed to a policy career in the service of the United States has to read the whole book. Machiavelli wrote a manual for the Prince, not for the Public Servant, and all of us must decide whom we want to be in this life. Yes, in a perfect world no President would send troops on a political mission, but politics and war cannot be separated. Sometimes, Private Ryan needs to be saved (or lost) for the greater good. Abraham Lincoln never lost sight of the political character of the war he was fighting; Clausewitz would say that no political leader ever should.
Of course, this can led to some very dangerous ideas. Assuming that Secretary Gates is right about President Obama and the Afghan surge (and he is making inferences, not reprinting memos), it is still possible to construct a defense. Suppose some President believed that a war was unwinnable but that public opinion wasn’t ready yet for the war to be lost. Fearful that a premature retreat would lead to a defeat at the polls and that this would put people in office who would make the international situation worse and lose even more U.S. lives to no purpose, a President could do something as mean and low as knowingly sending young people to die on a lost mission with the public interest at heart. A person could oppose a winning surge from the “bad party’s President” to advance his political career and then turn around and order a losing surge to protect his career without crossing a moral Rubicon—if said person believed that the value to the nation of installing and keeping him in the White House was astronomically high.
It may be that it was not so much what he saw as the moral tackiness and cheap opportunism of the White House that led Gates both to leave Washington and do something so uncharacteristic as to write a quick memoir. Gates may have come to feel that this President sincerely believes that the glorious omelette of his incumbency is well worth the loss of a few miscellaneous eggs. We may be reading a protest against grandiosity and messianism rather than one against hucksterism. The two are often not all that far apart.
Gates’s harshest criticisms are of Congress and of the petty bureaucracy of the Pentagon. In both cases he sees parochial interests triumphing over national security considerations and even the well-being of our forces in the field. Here again he taps into a very deep well of American sentiment. Contempt for Congress, though recently plumbing new depths, has been one of our favored national pastimes for more than two hundred years.
But however accurate Gates is in his portrayals of some politicians and some transactions, is this really the last word? Electoral politics, including the ancient and venerable science of barreling pork, is as crucial to the functioning of the American system of government as petty bureaucratic interests and routine are necessary to the functioning of any institution. Aesthetically, one cannot help but share Gates’s distaste for the sausage-making process; thinking politically, as long as Plato’s philosopher kings remain in occultation it is hard to see the country’s business, or even the Pentagon’s, being transacted in any other way.
Gates’s indictment of contemporary Washington (and both parties in his view contribute to the malaise) is weakest when he seems to be protesting against the natural and necessary conditions of democratic governance in a mass society. His indictment gains force, however, when he points to ways in which the short-termism and selfishness of retail politics and personal advancement has overwhelmed the pursuit of a larger national interest. It is one thing when a President sinks to indecorous political maneuvering for the sake of a larger project. If giving Congressman Blowhard a dam in his district will secure his support for the Marshall Plan, so be it. But what if the ends of policy are subordinated to the means? What if the goal of American foreign policy is to keep the President in power? What if the President makes a major foreign policy decision involving the lives of American forces in order to hold onto the power to give Congressman Blowhard and all his colleagues more dams?
In the end, it was what Gates saw as a drift toward strategic incoherence that seems to have made release from government service feel like such a relief. This is more than a matter of disagreement with the White House’s evolving policies on defense spending and the Afghan War. It is more than what seems to have been his shock and horror over what he (and many others) see as a profoundly misguided intervention in Libya. He was as appalled by sequestration and its impact on the country’s military strength and the well-being of those in the armed forces as he was by political opportunism on both sides of Congress. Millennial Washington looked to Gates very much like the city portrayed in Mark Leibovich’s This Town, and as the man charged with sending young people off to die in wars calculated to advance Washington careers, Robert Gates came to the point where he could not go on.
Despite his share of canny political skills and administrative ability, Secretary Gates was ultimately a fish out of water in Washington. He was a Hamiltonian and a moderate Republican in a time of populism. He was uncomfortable in a city of narcissistic strivers. He was a strategist in a roomful of opportunists. The disappointments of the first George W. Bush term created a space for Gates in the President’s second; the uncertainties of President Obama’s first term created a space for him there. One can’t help but wish the Secretary well in private life; he did his duty as he saw it, and his country cannot ask for more.