Memoirs of a Secretary at War
By Robert M. Gates
618 pages, $35
By Edward Cuddihy
News Book Reviewer
Once the reader moves beyond the prepublication hype aimed at the nation’s cadre of talking heads by zealous and wily marketers, the reader of this smash best-seller uncovers a frank and expansive graduate course on the inner workings of a huge, powerful centralized government. It’s simply titled “Duty.”
For those who haven’t followed the Sunday morning news saga, highly respected retired Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and kept on by President Obama took his shot at establishing a legacy in this book.
Then, about a month before publication, the book’s publicists began leaking the juiciest quotes, sometimes out of context, in keeping with the well-established practice of creating anticipation for what otherwise might be just another dry book about the government.
Based on the leaked material, some praised the secretary for his candor and humility, while others condemned his work as “ill-tempered” and a shameful “antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.” The publicists loved it, as they say, all the way to the bank.
Well, any reader expecting the government equivalent of a kiss and tell memoir, based on a mere dozen or so excerpts from a 600-page book, will likely be let down.
It doesn’t take a book to tell us that a loquacious Vice President Joe Biden often argues forcefully without the facts, or that President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel just as often has a meager vocabulary and it’s colored purple.
Nor is it a surprise that presidents sometimes distrust and second-guess the military establishment, or that commanders in the field often question the motives of the civilian leadership. Or that both sides get pretty angry at one another.
If you’re going to search the text which is dense with names and dates – a boon to future historians – for the juicy quote to support an argument on the right or the left, you’re missing the whole point of this book.
This is an extended lesson in how to read the Washington bureaucratic monster from the pen of a master bureaucrat. For example, Gates explains: “One tactic of bureaucracies is to fill the boss’ time with meetings so that he or she has no time to meddle in their affairs.”
Robert Gates is a career Washington insider. He has worked for eight presidents over 48 years and has been a member of the National Security Council staff under four administrations. He knows how to navigate treacherous waters. He is a survivor in a place that eats up mere mortals.
Gates has served for Republicans and Democrats, and while being as nonpartisan as one dares in Washington, he stipulates to leaning to the right of center and to considering himself a Republican. So it is no bombshell that while praising and respecting both Presidents Bush and Obama, it is obvious he had a higher comfort level with the Bush White House.
The U.S. was at war with either Iraq or Afghanistan for every day of his 4½ years as defense secretary. And in an unprecedented move, a new president of the opposing party asked him to stay on. He served longer under Obama than Bush.
Gates doesn’t mince words, so who better to tell us how our government is working – or not working – in 2014?
To be sure, memoirs, whether written by Ulysses S. Grant, George Patton or Douglas MacArthur – even Julius Caesar for that matter – are by their nature highly self-serving. So let’s accept that and move on. Gates is not shy about taking credit for many things large and small.
Yet, when a well-regarded and proven expert on Washington infighting with intimate knowledge about how this country’s military establishment and elected leaders plan and wage war claims a great deal is broken, his voice is worth a hearing.
When Congress and the media eager for a story start shouting that a military action or strategy is a failure, Gates suggests we take it with a grain of salt, just as we are skeptical of announced successes. From the vantage point of the commander in the field, probably neither is correct. Both often are political posturing.
Gates describes the many congressmen he has faced over the years as generally intelligent and insightful in private, but when “that little red light went on atop a television camera, it had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf.”
Here, in this critic’s words, are a few cogent observations gleaned from Gates’ observations:
• Nothing in Washington ever is what it appears. Nothing in Washington ever is simple. (One wonders how a White House light bulb gets changed.)
• Just about everyone in Washington has a secret agenda. Just about everyone in the White House inner circle has a deep secret agenda. Just about every secret agenda contains a subliminal secret agenda. [Gates’ CIA training is showing.]
• No one in Washington trusts anyone else, and for good reason. The American government leaks like a sieve, and always has. And the Washington press corps always gets the leaker’s side of the story.
• Nothing infuriates a president or Cabinet member like a leak, unless of course they are the impetus for the leak.
That leads us to the question of the propriety of revealing the decision-making processes at the highest level White House meetings while a president still is in office, and a war still is being waged.
As an old newspaper editor, this critic comes down on the side of government transparency, lest we forget who and what we are. Of course there are secrets that the common good dictates remain behind closed doors. Secretary Gates is scrupulously cautious on that count.
But the huge federal government is like an onion. When the president or a congressional leader steps before a microphone, the public sees only the shiny outside of the onion. When the Washington press corps, the best and most experienced in the world, digs into a topic, we see several layers of the onion peeled back, but still only a small fraction of the bureaucratic maneuvering and turf fighting.
So if the next time we read a dry presidential statement out of Washington, we can better understand what was going on behind the scenes, what was being said at a congressional oversight committee, what was being hashed out ad nauseum in the Situation Room, and what compromises were being negotiated secretly among members of the president’s inner circle, the Gates memoirs is a success.
Every time we peel back the onion of this inconceivably huge and diverse Washington bureaucracy, even a little bit, it’s worth the pain.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.