Éditoriaux de l'Ifri Chroniques américaines

The Return of Robert Gates Chroniques américaines, January 2014

The memoirs of public men are exercises in self-promotion and self-justification. They are designed to etch a portrait of the (wo)man that will live across time. It's the legacy thing. These days, that legacy pertains also to the "here and now" since memoirs are not necessarily the conclusion of a career but rather the curtain-raising on its next act.

The Return of Robert Gates

So they are not to be read as first cuts at writing history - although their revelations of others and, inadvertently, themselves may be useful to historians. They are meant to shape perception, to guide understanding. All to make the author look good: dedicated, brave and sound of judgment. Often, that goal is served by sprinkling skillfully placed touches of modesty and gentle self-criticism into the text. Robert Gate’s memoir is a model of the genre.

The value of these works depends on two things: the veracity of the various tidbits from doings inside the machine that are offered for our delectation; and the honesty of the author. By honesty, we mean rather more than accurate rendering of what happened and how. We also mean a measure of integrity in the exposure of motives and in the memoirist's admission of error in judgment - however qualified and downplayed. Moreover, we may hope for some intellectual integrity as demonstrated by a recognition of logical contradictions in the conduct and thinking of the protagonist and that of his associates.

After all, as George Orwell told us: "He who controls the past controls the future...and he who controls the present controls the past." Let the games begin!

Who is Robert Gates?

Robert Gates is among the most successful public figures in cultivating an image of probity and commitment to the public good. He has worked hard and successfully at it. A gentlemanly manner, a dignified poise, and a direct mode of address. His appointment as Secretary of Defense by Barack Obama (in the latter's instinctive obeisance to the powers that be) added the element of above-the-fray bipartisanship. There is, though, another Robert Gates. The latter is an unreconstructed hawk who prefers confrontation to engagement, whose instincts of mind and action are conditioned by a rudimentary power politics, who never saw a rival of the United States as anything less than a grave menace, who believes that weak-kneed liberals have always been a serious danger to the nation's security since Vietnam days, and who is a partisan Republican when push comes to shove.

This is the man who skewed CIA intelligence assessments of Soviet capabilities and intentions so as to serve the personal agenda of CIA Director William Casey in the Reagan days, who called Mikhail Gorbachev a "drugstore cowboy" who has shown his true Bolshevik colors in January 1991 (more than a year after the disintegration of the USSR"s Eastern European empire), when hard-liners of the dying Soviet Union broke up demonstrations in Vilnius, Lithuania. (1) This is the man who gave George Bush unqualified support in attacking Iraq, who oversaw the later stages of the fruitless attempt to turn Afghanistan into an American satrapy, who thought that the GWOT was the right response to 9/11, who pressed for the United States to stay on in Iraq, who was the godfather to the successful attempt by the Pentagon brass to pressure Obama into his ill-advised escalation in Afghanistan in late 2009, who strongly opposed sacking General Stanley McChrystal despite his offensive attacks on the character of the President and Vice-President, who has joined Condoleezza Rice and Steven Hadley in opening a Washington consulting shop that peddles hawkish foreign policy ideas along with influence to clients.

The Cast

A headline item in reviews of Gate’s memoir is his bitter attack on Vice-President Joe Biden. He is accused of improperly inserting himself in the chain-of-command between the President and the Secretary, of “poisoning the well” against the military leadership, and of so lacking in judgment about foreign policy matters as to “have been wrong about every major issue over the past forty years.” This means that Biden was wrong (and Gates right) on Ronald Reagan’s engagement with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold war on American terms, which Gates opposed and Biden supported; on die-hard support for the doomed South Vietnamese government in 1975 (supported by Gates, opposed by Biden); on maintaining substantial American forces in Iraq circa 2010 (supported by Gates as well as Biden); on denying the Pentagon a blank check to continue prosecuting the war in Afghanistan with 150,000 troops indefinitely (supported by Gates). It is the last that gets Gates" back up. For Biden was the one participant in the White House strategy sessions of late 2009 who opposed the Gates/Petraeus/Panetta/ McChrystal campaign for a massive, open-ended surge to sustain a comprehensive counter-insurgency cum nation-building mission. While the President’s political advisers were urging caution behind the scenes on strictly electoral grounds, it was the Vice-President who took on the Pentagon (and its allies, e.g. Hillary Clinton) by sharply questioning their assumptions, the realism of their audacious goals, and offering a more modest alternative that would concentrate on counter-terrorism actions.

This is what Gates choses to castigate as “poisoning the well" i.e. Obama’s mind, against the Pentagon brass. The detailed accounts that we have of the policy-making dynamics at the time strongly point to a different assessment. It was the military leadership that was trying to steamroll the President - taking advantage of his weakness, insecurity on foreign policy matters, and deferential attitude toward the bemedaled generals. Repeatedly, they refused to provide the President with a full and fair set of options - rather, skewing their planning documents so as to disparage every alternative to what they were advocating. This is the same tack that Gates admits taking when options on possible intervention in Libya were under review. As he writes, his instructions to the Pentagon were: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts" like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.” This is insubordination - a violation of his oath to provide his commander-in-chief with the means to make a decision in the national interest.

That same mindset explains Gates staunch defense of General Petraeus" stated intent to circumvent the President’s commitment to set a strict time-limit on the surge’s duration. (2) Petraeus boasted of this to favored reporters. When Obama made an oblique warning of what he called a possible attempt “to game him” so as to circumvent the limits that he had set on the Afghan escalation at a cabinet meeting a year later, Gates felt moved to consider resigning on the grounds that a President voiced conviction that he would not let his authority be undercut in this way amounted to “suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials — including the president and vice president — (that) became a big problem for me.

The harsh truth is that Gates and his uniformed partners had played Obama for a chump. Now, after two and a half years, they were upset at the smallest sign that he might be wising up.

The Military Caste

Unwittingly, Gates’memoirs reveals a dismaying truth about the transformation of the American security establishment - especially the Pentagon - over the past generation. The military brass increasingly see themselves s a privileged caste - and act accordingly (as witness Petraeus and McChrystal). Their disdain for civilian leadership, especially when a Democrat holds the White House, is almost palpable. Security officials are divided into two categories: either with “‘us’ or ‘against us." Even decorated senior officers may be placed in the latter category if they don’t toe the dominant line. Thus, two of the high White House officials accused of interfering with Pentagon operations are General James Jones (Obama’s first National Secretary Adviser) and General Douglas E. Lute (NSC coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan who previously had served George Bush). By contrast, Panetta, Hillary Clinton and Gates are honorary members of the fraternity. Lute is among those explicitly charged with being regularly engaged in “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.” Then there was Ambassador (General) Karl Eikenberry in Kabul, former commander of IFSA, who took exception to the Pentagon’s approach and reasoning about the stalled effort there when the “surge" was being debated in 2009. In a long, closely argued memo, Eikenbery took apart the Pentagon plan piece by piece. Gates, and the Pentagon’s response, was to decry its being leaked and then to ignore it by excluding the Ambassador from all deliberations and never answering the challenges that he had laid out. This despite the series of Pentagon leaks beginning in July of assessments that anything short of the desired surge was a sure failure.

Much of Gates" criticism directed at the White House staff is justified. There have been too many inexperienced people presuming to assess problems and to recommend action on matters of which they know little. And yes, prominent among them are untested academics, former Congressional staffers and political consultants like the ubiquitous David Axelrod. Obama has not disciplined the process or undertaken a serious review of the U.S." multiple, unproductive engagements. He simply bought into the conventional wisdom on every matter of consequence. American foreign policy over the past five years has indeed been amateurish in design and execution. However, the errors of judgment cannot be placed on their shoulders alone. The Pentagon, the CIA and other “professional” agencies of the Executive Branch have been at least as wrong on the big policy questions, lacking in candor when addressing either the president or the public, and unwilling to admit their mistakes. Moreover, they saw weakness at the White House as opening a way to advance their own agendas and careers. (3) Gates embodies that public persona - one that is at variance with his posture of nonpartisan calm, reason and conciliation, i.e. the quintessential dutiful servant of the Republic.

Hillary Clinton

Another of Gates’ headline revelations is Hillary Clinton’s admission that her shift to oppose the Iraq war in 2007 was dictated by electoral considerations. Gates offers a catalogue of various meetings, based in part on notes that he and his aides made at the time, including an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Clinton that he calls “remarkable.” “Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary...  The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. Hillary's clearly was the more damning admission. Yet Gates concentrates his fire on Obama. Later he exalts Hillary as an outstanding Secretary of State, depicting her in the sort of glowing terms that might be used in a political endorsement. “I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world,” he wrote.

Why? Well, Hillary Clinton had consistently aligned herself with the national security establishment, and Gates" Pentagon in particular. Now, she may well be the next President. Gates doubtless wants to have access to the White House and Hillary’s administration: to be consulted here, appointed to a board there - generally to retain his high standing in the firmament of Washington elites. In addition, by blasting Obama he shores up his position within Republican circles where visceral feelings about the President are intense and widespread.

Gates concludes his memoir with a sentimental recounting of the emotions felt when jogging past the national war monuments on the Washington Mall. His deep bond to the men and women in uniform is a recurrent image in his book. Invoking the sacramental image of the fallen has become de rigueur when our country’s leaders reflect in public on patriotism and sacrifice. They usually have a tone of pathos. Here is Gates: “I got up at five every morning to run two miles around the Mall in Washington, past the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam memorials, and in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And every morning before dawn, I would ritually look up at that stunning white statue of Lincoln, say good morning, and sadly ask him, how did you do it?”

Without self-pity. Abraham Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg carved a votive monument to the Civil War dead that would endure through the ages. They were not just symbols or props to serve other purposes. He did not use the memorial occasion to rail at his opponents, to summon the spirit of the dead to settle old scores, to highlight the wisdom of his leadership, to reaffirm that he was a wronged man who had been right. Much less did he imagine himself basking in the honor accorded those who sacrificed as he prepared to pursue post-presidential activities peddling influence and contacts. For a man of integrity, that would have been to sully the respect due those whose death marked the tragedy that is war and the righteous cause that hallowed that unique occasion.


Michael Brenner is a Senior Research Fellow at the Energy Institute of the University of Texas at Austin and a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS-Johns Hopkins. You can write to him at mbren@pitt.edu.



(1) Quoted in Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1997)

(2) Extensive insider accounts of this episode are provided by Bob Woodward Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010, and Jonathan Alter, The Promise (New York: Simon & Schuster 2010)

(3) Obama had ample grounds to fear that he was being “gamed.” The Pentagon proponents of a large, open-ended commitment to a surge in Afghanistan had made a series of public statements, and arranged leaks, that called into question June 2011 as the firm date when a withdrawal of the surge would begin. This flew in the face of an explicit stipulation, which all parties had pledged to observe, to accept that as fixed. Indeed, Obama had draft a sort of premarital contract in December 2009 that stated exactly what the terms were. Yet within weeks of signing on, Gates and HRC testified before Congress that June 2011 was simply the time when an appraisal would be made whether to begin the troop reduction. This story is recounted in detail by Gareth Porter in “Gates Conceals Real Story of “Gaming” Obama on Afghan War” IPS News January 10, 2013. http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/01/gates-conceals-real-story-gaming-obama-afghan-war/--


Barack Obama Defense Military intervention Afghanistan Iraq United States