Robert Gates: memoirs of the “Soldier’s Secretary”, an old-fashioned realist

The former US Secretary of Defense on what the president never knew.

Veteran’s day: Robert Gates with President Obama at Gates’s farewell ceremony in 2011. Image: Getty.

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War
Robert M Gates
Knopf, 618pp, £25

Remember the famous scene in Casablanca when Captain Renault bursts into the Café Américain and declares, “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” before picking up his winnings and ordering everyone out? There are echoes of Captain Renault in the memoirs of Bob Gates – US secretary of state from 2006 to 2011 – which have just been released in the US and are full of incredulity and outrage at the cut-throat partisanship and point-scoring in Washington.

While his personal integrity is beyond reproach, Gates is more acquainted than most with the greasy pole of government. Originally a Russia specialist he served on the National Security Council in the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and first Bush administrations before becoming director of the CIA in 1991. The title of his previous memoir, published in 1996, says it all: From the Shadows: the Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War. So, the reader of his latest volume might be surprised to read how he found himself on a “learning curve” on his return, “taking a crash course in asserting myself with senior officers”, taken aback by “shenanigans on the hill” and shocked by “bureaucratic bushfires” in the Pentagon.

As he is the consummate establishment figure, Gates’s bridge-burning, page-turning account of the frustrations of office has taken some by surprise. Having served during George W Bush’s second term and the first two years of the Obama administration – the only defence secretary ever to survive a change of parties – he had a ringside seat for some of the most important national security decisions taken by the US in the post-9/11 era.

Gates, an old-fashioned realist, believes that American foreign policy has become overly “militarised” in recent years, a process that started under Bush Jr and the “simplistic” freedom agenda of his first term. The Obama White House is more centralised and controlling on issues of national security than any since the days of Nixon and Kissinger. Worse still, partisan politics has infected the highest levels of decision-making on national security. Vested interests are pandered to, and campaign staffers and pollsters hold disproportionate sway. In order to wrest control back, the military has also begun to sink to the same level, engaging in cycles of leaks and counter-leaks in order to push its own agenda.

Gates’s longevity in office can partly be explained by the fact he is seen as being above such dark arts. On taking office in 2006, he also had the immediate advantage that he wasn’t Donald Rumsfeld. For Bush, he was a pliable and trustworthy replacement, who could be relied upon not to obstruct the increasingly desperate attempts to salvage something from the campaign in Iraq. Obama’s decision to keep him on was based on the recognition that he was not tarred by the excesses of the early Bush years and that he could act as an experienced interlocutor between the White House and the military (though, arguably, he became a pawn between them). Obama’s sensitivity about what he perceived as a lack of respect from some senior generals is a fascinating subtext of the book

While Gates respects the conviction and bravery of both presidents – and records how they often went against the worst instincts of their entourages – he was not close to either. Asked to travel to the Bushes’ ranch at Crawford to discuss his return to office in 2006, he is told that the dress code is “ranch casual” (sports shirts and khakis or jeans). Uncomfortable with the implied informality, he opts for a blazer and slacks. He notes with admiration that Obama never took off his tie in the Oval Office, as a sign of “respect for the office”. But Gates’s lack of interest in basketball or golf meant that they struggled when it came to small talk – and the generational rift between them was underlined by their different views on gays in the military.

While his memoir weighs in at over 600 pages, Gates was not much of a talker in meetings at the White House Situation Room. It is only when his temper frayed that he found his voice – venting at junior members of Obama’s team, letting loose on General Stanley McChrystal after his disastrous interview in Rolling Stone magazine, and going for the jugular in some of his encounters with Congress and the Senate. He also describes how he fired missives at several foreign leaders for their failure to live up to the standards expected of allies (notably Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak). The UK, America’s chief ally in these two wars, is, it is worth noting, barely mentioned.

Gates’s greatest contempt is reserved for Vice President Joe Biden, whom he describes as having got nearly every major foreign-policy decision wrong over the past four decades. Yet his own political antennae are not particularly well-tuned. Time and again he misses a beat, finds himself at the mercy of events, sidelined or blindsided as the bullets fly around him. While preparing modest military reinforcements for Iraq in 2006-07, he is completely taken by surprise as Bush goes against nearly all advice and orders a huge surge of troops (something that, once it was on the agenda, Gates did prove adept at facilitating).

He fiercely opposes an Israeli air strike against a nuclear weapon’s installation in Syria in 2007, only for Bush to ignore him and give Israel the green light (forcing Gates to concede that “a big problem was solved and none of my fears were realised”). He is in an even smaller minority who opposes the Bin Laden raid in favour of a drone strike. Again, to his credit, he concedes that the president gets the decision right.

Duty is dedicated to the US’s armed forces, whose sacrifices move Gates to tears on more than one occasion. His lasting achievement, and the distinctive feature of his tenure, was to become the “Soldier’s Secretary”, who lobbied for better equipment and took a genuine interest in improving the care and living conditions of troops and their families. But his own sense of duty was a very traditional one that involved only venturing his opinion when the president asked for it.

His most stinging criticism of President Obama is that he failed to provide sufficient leadership in the Afghan campaign and did not believe in his own strategy there. But Gates never raised this or his other main concern – about the centralisation of decision-making in the White House – with Obama directly. “What I didn’t tell the president”, he writes on more than one occasion – perhaps that might have been a better title for his book.

John Bew is an award-winning historian and a New Statesman contributing writer