Read Gates’ Book Before Quoting Him

Having served on the periphery of Robert Gates’ life during my career, the screaming headlines about his “tell all” memoir of his tenure as Secretary of Defense, Duty, left me troubled.

Mostly the pundits concluded that he wrote the book in order to savage President Barack Obama, questioning Obama’s integrity. How else were we to interpret the most-quoted excerpt: The President “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Having thus been quoted as condemning the President, Gates appeared to damn him with faint praise “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.”

Pundits competed amongst themselves asking how such a highly-respected former public servant could have turned on the President with such vitriol? They accused Gates himself of hypocrisy because in the closing chapter he writes of Obama’s Afghanistan policies, “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”

Obama’s political detractors picked the excerpts that backed their narrative such as this from the Washington Times: “If the President really had those misgivings about the wisdom of committing American sons and daughters to combat in a mountainous hellhole half a world away, then what became of those strong convictions he had always assured us he felt? If these were his true beliefs with regard to Afghanistan in 2011, then did the same apply to Benghazi in 2012 and afterward?”

The President’s supporters went after Gates. Initially, I concluded that his tenure had induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or that he was just venting out of frustration.

I have just finished reading the book: about 630 mostly unfootnoted pages. I concluded that none of the pundits actually read it all themselves. I suspect they instructed their junior staffers to read it quickly and highlight whatever would make headlines; it is a common practice in many professions, not just journalism.

I also concluded that Mr. Gates should probably have put away the draft manuscript for a couple of months and then taken one last look so as to avoid giving the staffers the ammunition their bosses wanted. (I doubt it would have made much difference; those kids know what they are paid to find.)

Halfway through the book, I understood that Gates intended to describe how government makes decisions. He showed once again that lofty campaign rhetoric and party platforms never survive their first encounter with reality.

That reality includes the limitations imposed by conflicting demands on scarce resources and the unfortunate and embarrassing facts left behind by your predecessors or the fact that even your closest and most trusted advisors and colleagues bring their own baggage.

Neither a Chicago politician nor a neoconservative ideologue advising a president can escape the fact that he sees the world through his own prism. Gates describes a process akin to making sausages; if you ever saw it becoming a vegan would look so much more palatable.

Gates describes passionately but honestly what happened when President George W. Bush called him in essentially to restore order to the disaster created by his old friends and colleagues Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the neocons.

The book covers both the Bush and Obama Administrations. The pundits mostly quoted the bad things Gates wrote to say about the president still in office struggling with our country’s problems; Gates ill-hidden distaste for Vice President Cheney is so not newsworthy. His equally obvious affection for Hillary Clinton took a back seat to the comments on Obama.

To his credit, Gates recognizes his own baggage. He idolizes the troops and feels their suffering deep inside. He bitterly condemns those who see going to war as the first argument and not the last.

Politicians of any stripe who put party above politics anger him. But the pundits mostly miss the fact that Gates recognizes that Obama must deal with the lousy hand that reality has dealt him and that he mostly made the right decisions. In fact, I read his comment that Obama “didn’t consider the war (he inherited) to be his” as praise for the President’s perseverance in prosecuting what he sees as a bad war.

The real lesson from Gates’ book is our leaders must have the people’s support for vital decisions. Therefore, democracy, more than any other form of government, depends on a well-informed populace.

History shows that when the people believe the lies that make them comfortable and do not listen to the unpleasant truth, disaster follows. For an early example, read about Alcibiades persuading the Athenians to attack Syracuse.

Commenting on the reactions to his book, Gates said, “There are no evil people in this book. There are no villains. And certainly not the two presidents . . . And I think if people read the whole book, as opposed to cherry-picking sentences, then I think it’s pretty hard to say that I vilify anybody.”

Those are my conclusions but don’t take my word for it, go read the book. However, if you have already made up your mind about the good and bad guys, then don’t waste your time.