Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War
By Robert M. Gates
Knopf, 640 pages

Robert Gates has the unusual perspective of having served in the same Cabinet position (secretary of defense) under two presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) from two different parties. That perspective alone would make any personal account of his years at the center of American defense and foreign policy from 2006 to 2011 necessary reading. But the real story that Duty tells isn’t about Robert Gates. It’s about how one man, George W. Bush, decided to defy every adviser and expert in order to push a change of strategy in Iraq he believed would win a war everyone else thought was lost, while another, Barack Obama, tried to avoid making a similar decision in 2009 that would win the war in Afghanistan.

When Gates came on board in late 2006, Bush had already decided earlier that spring that a radical shift of strategy was necessary in Iraq after three years of frustration, more and more American casualties, and gathering chaos. At his first meeting as secretary of defense with the president and his military advisers on December 13, Gates heard the joint chiefs reject the idea of sending in additional forces, out of worry that it would “break the force” by overstretching our military. Bush listened, but then said, “The surest way to break the force is to lose in Iraq.”

On January 2, 2007, Gates called General David Petraeus to ask if he would take over as commander in Iraq to implement the new strategy. Petraeus agreed, but both he and his deputy, Ray Odierno, insisted on a commitment of five additional brigades, or 21,500 troops, to make the surge work. That is when “all hell broke loose,” as Gates describes it, both at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, with Bush holding steady and firm in the midst of the firestorm. “I can recall only three instances,” Gates writes, “ in which, in my opinion, a president risked reputation, public esteem, credibility, political ruin, and the judgment of history on a single decision he believed was the right thing for our country.” The other two were Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush’s assent to the 1990 budget deal. But Bush’s decision on the surge, even overruling his own military high command, was far more consequential than either—and one would argue, more correct.

Those who tried to halt the surge strategy, both at the start and later in mid-stride, included  then-Senators Joe Biden, who dismissed it as “a tragic mistake”; Hillary Clinton, who implied Petraeus might be lying about the surge’s growing success; Barack Obama, who asked, “At what point do we say, enough?”; and Chuck Hagel, who said it was “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” All would wind up manning the foreign-policy tiller after Bush. They would also take credit for a successful withdrawal from Iraq—a withdrawal made possible by the surge they trashed.  

The most devious opponent Gates and Bush faced was the late Congressman John Murtha, a longtime Democratic hawk, who wanted the brigades being sent to be certified as fully combat-ready—until Gates explained to the rest of Congress that this gimmick would cut the possible surge forces by a third. But the most potentially destructive in Gates’s mind was Senate majority leader Harry Reid, whose declarations that “this war is lost” and “the surge has accomplished nothing” constantly sent the message to the troops and their families that they were risking their lives uselessly. Gates notes that he found a quotation by Abraham Lincoln and sent it to his staff for their eyes only: “Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, and hanged.” Amazingly, it didn’t leak.

As for Hillary Clinton, the press has made much—actually too much—of the passage in Duty where Barack Obama and Secretary of State Clinton admit in Gates’s hearing that their opposition to the 2007 surge was largely political and how dismayed he was. In fact, throughout the rest of the book, Gates praises her as a strong ally in the effort to get President Obama to commit himself on key foreign-policy matters including the surge in Afghanistan, and with whom he “agreed on almost every important issue.” Gates also has words of praise for Obama. He commends the president’s “courage” in launching the Bin Laden raid; he speaks of his visits to wounded soldiers.

But otherwise the portrait he paints of Obama is deeply damning without actually saying so, and it revolves around the same question Bush faced in 2007: How does one win a war, in this case Afghanistan, that one’s own advisers believed was at a stalemate or even lost? Here the contrast with Bush could not be more stark. Unlike his predecessor, possessed of an iron will and determination to do the right thing, we see a president who has to be dragged into making a decision. For four long months, from August until mid-November 2009, Gates fought to make Obama take ownership of the conflict Obama himself had declared was “a war we must win,”  and to accept the notion that a temporary surge in troops would have enormous, even decisive, benefits.

Obama’s resistance sprang not only from the constant chorus of his political advisers, who said that a surge would damage his relationship with Democrats. Vice President Biden also warned that Republicans on the Hill would exploit “Obama’s war” in the same ruthless way he and Biden had exploited Bush’s surge in Iraq. (In truth, Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsay Graham stood firm with the president.) Obama also came to believe the military was trying to back him into a corner on Afghanistan, in order to wreck his presidency. 

As Gates relates, Bush respected and felt at ease with his uniformed commanders, even when he was questioning their views or overruling them. Obama, by contrast, never trusted or respected Petraeus, or Navy chief Mike Mullen, or General Stanley McChrystal, the universally respected expert on counterterrorist operations who said an extended CT strategy would never work in Afghanistan, and that the surge was the way to go. At times Obama’s fear of his top commanders seems to have bordered on paranoia. Even when he did finally agree to the surge strategy and appointed McChrystal to lead it, he insisted on trimming the number of troops to be sent—and kept looking for any excuse to back out. 

So, when Rolling Stone ran its dismaying article on McChrystal, quoting his staff as saying Obama was a disappointment and mocking Biden, Obama was inclined to use it as an excuse to scrap the surge itself, which had been approved only six months earlier.  “[McChrystal] doesn’t seem to be making progress,” Gates quotes Obama as grumbling. “Maybe his strategy is not really working.”

Gates urged the president not to fire the man he had so recently given the job of turning the tide in Afghanistan. “I believe if we lose McChrystal, we lose the war,” he said, and the damage to relations with Afghan president Karzai, with whom McChrystal had developed a relationship of trust, would be “irrevocable.”

But in Obama’s mind, he and his administration had been dissed, and whoever did it had to go, regardless of the effect on the war. And although the surge did work under McChrystal’s successor, David Petraeus, we still await an answer to the question of whether the delay in first approving it and then changing commanders, and the loss of the one person who could deal with Karzai, damaged the American cause “irrevocably.”

Still, the sharpest contrast between Bush and Obama for Gates was the latter’s lack of engagement in a conflict that was both vital to American interests and had cost thousands of young Americans their lives or limbs. He writes that Bush “was passionate about the war in Iraq; I would see his eyes well up with tears” at Medal of Honor ceremonies. “When soldiers put their lives on the line,”
Gates writes, “they need to know that the commander in chief who sent them in harm’s way believes in their mission.”

Yet Obama never did, then or later. As his subsequent actions both in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, his chief interest was and is to put these conflicts behind him, regardless of future consequences—or even whether the thousands of families who lost loved ones on those battlefields will be left with the sense that those loved ones died for nothing. 

Duty is a powerful account of how one president was willing to make hard decisions for the sake of the country, regardless of how it affected his political image, because he believed the cause was just; while another was determined to avoid those hard choices regardless of how it affected the country or rendered the sacrifice of young Americans useless, because in the end the only cause he believed in was himself.

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