Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review (#70 of 2014) Duty by Robert M. Gates


One of the best memoirs I have ever read, especially by a Cabinet member. This is a helpful book both in terms of an example of both management and leadership; not only of Gates' styles and practices but also Bush and Obama's. I contrast this to Timothy Geithner's memoir which contained nothing in the way of describing leadership or management.

"I did not like my job," "I loathed the job," etc. Gates did not seek the job nor did he want to stay there. He became too emotionally involved (quite obvious if you saw the 60 Minutes interview with him) to make unbiased decisions about the "young men and women" he was trying his best to protect.

Gates was over an agency with 3.2 million employees and a $1 trillion budget. He gives insight into the management of that budget, as he was heavily involved (and praised) for cutting programs, pushing back against Congress' projects, and moving funding to programs that badly needed it.

When he went to Washington he sought the counsel of many, and I appreciated his sharing that process. Every good leader and manager learns from other leaders and managers. Gates already enjoyed bipartisan support and friendships from having served in seven previous administrations, Obama was the 8th President he served. He was also the first Secretary of Defense ever to work for consecutive Presidents from two different political parties. That makes this book an unprecedented read.

This book is very relevant to several current events, and I find that not enough commentators seem to have read Gates' memoirs.

Gates was a Russian history scholar which led him into the CIA in 1968. He understands Putin as one who longs for a previous version of Russian empire. Gates is critical of NATO's aggressive expansion in the 1990s, seeing it from Putin's point of view. He told Putin that he would not accept international criticism over moving troops from Texas to California, so he completely understood why Putin chafed at criticism of Russian bases in the Ukraine and Central Asia. He essentially predicts what Russian reaction would be if it saw Ukraine moving Westward.

Gates opposed the Obama Administration's desire to create a no-fly zone in Libya as a costly misuse of resources with unintended consequences. "I was stubborn, but not insubordinate." 
He (and allegedly Secretary of State Clinton) repeatedly criticizes the Administration's micromanagement of military actions as unprecedented compared to the seven previous administrations (except Nixon) under which Gates had worked.  Candidate Obama argued that the President did not have the authority to unilaterally order military action in a foreign country without an imminent threat to the U.S. Various lawyers from Defense and the State Department contended that he had no authority to engage forces in Libya for more than 60 days. President Obama instead sided with White House lawyers that argued that he could keep forces engaged there indefinitely. The micromanagement continued in other areas such as Hatian relief.

Gates worried about the influence of the Israelis and the Saudis in the Bush White House. He did not want to attack Iran, basically sees himself as getting the administration out of that jam. Only time he "lost his cool" was with King Abdullah, who was waxing forth about the weakness of the U.S. and how he wanted the U.S. to protect Saudi Arabia by attacking Iran. Gates did not like talk of sacrifice of U.S. men & women when the Saudis were willing to sacrifice nothing. Abdullah described Gates as "turning over the table" in the meeting.  Abdullah thanked him for his candor and said it was the first time he actually knew the Administration's true position. Gates writes that the State Department recommended Obama not say much during Iran's Green Revolution, but in hindsight he thinks the Administration should have been more vocal in support of the protests.


Gates also worked to reform the Department of Veteran Affairs after scandals involving mistreatment of soldiers. He worried that his successor would not be up to the task of keeping VA's feet to the fire to reform. He particularly worked on better information flow going to veterans who were seeking care in a complicated system. He does not have high praise for VA.

There is little insight into Syria, but Gates opposed open American assistance for the Israelis in bombing a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, which Israel later did itself.

He never directly criticizes Rumsfeld or other predecessors, but it's clear he felt he'd inherited a mismanaged mess. Besides the VA messes, Afghanistan had gotten woefully little attention and too many programs pushed by congressmen eager for jobs and votes had been unopposed.


Gates entered the Bush Administration after serving on the Iraq Study Group that, among other things, recommended a large increase in troop presence to stem the violence. He admired Bush's courage for going with "the surge" after most of the top generals opposed it. Gates cites the acquisition and further development of armored MRAP vehicles as his biggest personal accomplishment, saving hundreds of lives and limbs from IEDs. He was frustrated in pushing against his commanders who did not want the vehicle. I think he felt we did the best we could in Iraq, providing security and an opportunity for the fledgling democracy to get off the ground, but knew it was always too much to expect the Iraqis to build a functioning democracy and federal government the likes of which it had never seen before. He never trumpets political successes in Iraq the way Bush and Condoleeza Rice do in their memoirs.

Obama disappointed Gates in being different on issues as a candidate than he was as President. He felt that Obama campaigned on more attention for Afghanistan but that, once in office, Obama never had "passion for the mission." Gates laments that Joe Biden decided to be an even stronger influence on the President than Dick Cheney had been, something contrary to what Biden had said during the campaign. Biden and other staffers were constantly putting articles and opinions in front of Obama to argue that his generals were borderline insubordinate and trying to undermine confidence in the White House. Gates heard Obama say "I am giving an order," which he'd never known a President or any other civilian leader (including Secretary of Defense) say. Gates was offended by the statement and writes that it shows Obama and Biden's unfamiliarity with military culture.

In Obama's defense, he did agree to a troop surge. "The mission" in Afghanistan was never quite clear, which Gates also admits. Is it building a strong central government? Defeating the Taliban (which is ultimately impossible)? Gates admits that in some situations it is impossible to "win" but very possible to "lose," which he was afraid of in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Gates just hated how much domestic politics played into Obama's decisions and how all actions were so micromanaged. He felt the Stanley McChrystal affair was inevitable. Biden and other advisers were just looking for an opportunity for Obama to take a public action that would show that he was "in charge" over his military leadership.Gates was sickened by the politics and wanted to resign in 2010. He and Admiral Mullen are repeatedly put in awkward situations as the young Obama team criticizes Bush-era decisions that Gates and Mullen were instrumental in influencing. Biden seems eager to abandon Afghanistan altogether.

He contrast's Obama's lack of desire to forge working relationships with other foreign leaders with that of Bush and other presidents. But both Bush and Obama made decisions that went against their political base, decisions for which Gates has "utmost respect." However, the Obama White House was in campaign mode and put much more weight on domestic political concerns than the Bush team. Gates' harshest criticism of Obama comes from Obama having broken his word to Gates twice in the budget process, after Gates had worked out numbers with both Obama and the OMB director (both Orszag and Lew).One time, Obama gave Gates an expensive bottle of vodka and an apology for "driving him to drink." He felt Obama also went against his word in the process of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell. Obama was frustrated with procedure and enforcement of laws he believed were wrong. (This is disturbing to me as the President should not feel above the law, didn't we learn this problem with Nixon?) "I'm the leader of the free world and I can't do anything," Obama is quoted as saying. Gates writes that Obama is pragmatic, thoughtful and professional in his anger, his feelings always passed quickly.

Gates also has harsh criticism for Congress, even though he maintains a respect for their role. He laments the current "scorched earth" battle between Congress and the White House for political points. He admits that both Congress and the media treated him very kindly compared to other high-ranking officials. He had good relationships with both parties, including with Secretary of State Clinton. Both Obama and Gates treated Gates with "great generosity."

In the end, Gates hung on because of the kids on the battlefield. It was awkward him to meet A&M graduates to whom he had handed diplomas to (as President of Texas A&M) on the battlefield. He was not above weeping in front of them.This is a great memoir of someone who hated his job yet did it remarkably well and had unprecedented bipartisan respect. 5 stars, must read.

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