Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Robert M. Gates.

Knopf, 2014

Former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’s memoir follows the classic form, telling the story of his years at the Pentagon during the Bush and Obama administrations. He focuses on what he did and experienced personally as secretary, neither writing a broad policy treatise nor recounting the entire history of the administrations in which he served. In so doing, Gates provides penetrating insights about the inner workings of US national security decision-making.

Had I been George W. Bush, I would not have picked Gates as defense secretary, and had I been Barack Obama, I would not have kept him. I do not share Europe’s fascination with “technocratic” governments, no matter how bright and talented the individual technocrats. Effective governance certainly requires competent administration, but it rests more fundamentally on philosophy. Only presidents who reach their philosophical limits (Bush) or those hiding their real philosophy for political reasons (Obama) turn to technocratic cabinet secretaries. 

But agree or disagree with Gates’s opinions, official conduct, candour, judgement, or any aspect of his cabinet tenure, anyone interested in contemporary global affairs must read his account. Gates, a career civil servant, returned to Washington to take a post of particular political sensitivity. How such a career-long creature of the bureaucracy performed in that role, spanning two administrations poles apart rhetorically in national security policy, would alone warrant careful attention. But Gates’s candid description of how he came to detest his job makes for jaw-dropping reading, as the reader wonders how even this most bureaucratic of bureaucrats kept his emotions in check.

Beginning with the very title of his book, Gates makes clear that he believed he was “summoned to duty” — the title of the first chapter — as secretary of defense. But of course, in a free society, no one has any such obligation. Faced with an Administration contrary to one’s philosophy, that is incompetent, corrupt, or hopelessly out of its depth — or where one no longer has the stomach necessary to meet the expectations of a demanding post — the proper answer is to decline. Indeed, Gates’s argument about “duty” proves too much, because he eventually did leave, as everyone does, “duty” or no. And only a bureaucrat can see himself as so necessary that he could sequentially serve two masters as seamlessly as Gates says he did. 

It is stunning, therefore, to read that Gates told his wife after interviewing with Bush, “I just hope I can get out of this administration with my reputation intact.” If that’s what he truly believed, he should not have accepted Bush’s offer, lest his attitude in office reflect more his desire to survive, rather than his pursuit of the president’s policies. Gates’s unease might also explain his impatience and frustration, often to the point of rage, with the governmental process. That process is bad enough already, but it can certainly be worsened by an overweening concern with avoiding damage to one’s reputation. As Harry Truman famously warned: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

Listening to senators pontificate at his confirmation hearing, Gates foreshadowed his continuous battles with a congress he essentially despised: “It was the first of many, many times I would sit at the witness table thinking something very different from what I was saying.” Then, exactly two pages later, Gates quotes his answer to a question from Senator Edward Kennedy, saying he is not returning to Washington “to be a bump on a log and not say exactly what I think, and to speak candidly and, frankly, boldly…” Which is it? Does this self-contradiction in the memoir’s opening pages stem from Gates’s concern about his reputation, or something else? These are examples of the bombshells that explode on page after page.

Indeed, it is precisely the clarity of Gates’s memoir that has caused controversy, so vivid and explicit are the descriptions of turf fights, policy disagreements sometimes verging on the violent, personal animosities, and private discussions with the President and other senior Administration officials. Gates’s critics have made two basic points, one political, one ethical. First, they say, it was inappropriate for him to write about an administration still in office, with the Afghanistan war (a major aspect of the book) still underway, and, more amusingly, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ramping up her expected 2016 presidential campaign.

Second, they argue that Gates betrayed the trust of President Obama and other senior Defense and Administration colleagues by revealing their conversations, positions, and emotions.

Of course, neither criticism inhibited book sales (and may have helped them by creating additional waves of publicity), nor do they diminish the historical significance of what Gates has to say. Nonetheless, the legitimacy of writing such a memoir at this time is a fair subject for debate, not just for Gates, but for anyone who writes about his government service. As a Bush Administration alumnus who wrote a memoir, along with a plethora of other former colleagues, I have strong feelings on the subject.

I believe former senior officials have virtually an obligation to explain what they did while in government. Not all memoirs will be publishable, but as diary-keeping recedes into the mists, first-hand accounts of what actually happens in government are also decreasing, notwithstanding the growing availability of self-published e-books, blogs, and the like. It is jarringly apparent to government veterans that those who have never been “inside” find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand what goes on and why. Press accounts and “instant histories” are far too often lacking in insight and understanding of the government in operation. Accordingly, memoirs are critical to parting the curtain for the uninitiated, as Gates does.

As to Gates’s timing, I believe the criticisms are unfair and misplaced. There is no better moment for a prospective author to write than while his memory is still fresh, just after leaving government service. If such timing is inconvenient for the incumbent administration or former colleagues, that is their problem, not the author’s. Especially for those subject to the kind of withering criticism Gates levels at Obama, no time is convenient. Imagine what those now complaining about Gates’s timing would have said had the book emerged in September 2012.

Indeed, if Gates is subject to criticism on timing, it is precisely that he did not publish before the 2012 election, where exposing Barack Obama’s views on Afghanistan and his lack of interest in the global war on terrorism could have been significant. For example, voters could well have benefited from knowing what Gates was thinking during a March 2011 National Security Council meeting in the White House Situation Room, listening to the Commander in Chief:  “The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him it’s all about getting out.”

The harder, more important question is whether Gates violated the implicit confidences of the President and other senior colleagues. In some respects, this criticism parallels the justification for “executive privilege,” namely that the president must be able to receive candid advice from his subordinates, and that such candor is simply impossible if people expect to read about it thereafter. Since the integrity of Executive Branch decision-making is under siege from virtually every direction imaginable, it is no small matter if it is vulnerable from the very people directly advising the president.

But the executive-privilege analogy is only superficially accurate. All histories pose a threat to executive privilege, and insiders have been leaking internal administration battles since Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson propagandised against each other through partisan newspapers. Somehow, President Washington muddled through. Moreover, executive privilege’s true justification is to defend against an intrusive congress or judiciary, and its rationale is therefore different from the normal human expectation that confidences do not last forever. Except in the case of classified information, not at issue here, adults in US politics today understand that they are always on stage. There is no rule of omerta in politics, except perhaps in Chicago.

Moreover, Gates’s critics in the media are betraying their ideological bias. Their reaction would almost certainly have been radically different if it had been Bush whom Gates eviscerated rather than Obama. Much that Gates did in office is legitimately subject to debate and criticism, but he has performed an act of true public service by writing his memoir.