Robert Gates’s Blame-Shifting Memoir

A core myth about Robert Gates was that he was an “adult” who would bring wisdom and order to the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But the reality was always different as his score-settling memoir reveals, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Stop the presses: Robert Gates has a revealing memoir that provides penetrating new insights into how Washington works. Such as that election considerations influence how presidents, and presidential aspirants in senior positions, speak and behave. And that Congress is a dysfunctional place where members ask hostile and impertinent questions at hearings. And that different parts of the Executive Branch compete with each for influence.

Oh, wait, we already knew all that. We also knew, and some of us have even written about, more specific things such as how Barack Obama’s history of contrasting the “good war” in Afghanistan with the bad one in Iraq shunted him onto the politically attractive but strategically questionable track of ramping up to a short-lived “surge” in Afghanistan before quickly ramping down.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

We also knew, or should have known, what is being revealed about Robert Gates, although the public imaging success that this master of reputation preservation has enjoyed through the years has made that sort of insight less obvious. Gates has throughout his career been especially adept at seeing that responsibility and accountability for what is unsuccessful, untoward, or unpopular stops at levels just below his own.

This has included levels inhabited by members of the uniformed military on whose behalf he has presented himself as a defender. Now it appears that the sort of blame-shifting techniques that he has long employed downward he also, having walked out the door of public service, can use sideways and upwards as well.

The lead tidbit in Bob Woodward’s front-page summary of Gates’s memoir concerns President Obama’s purported disbelief in the mission in Afghanistan. Such a disbelief is not uncommon, if by missions we mean declared, official missions. The real reasons, sometimes political but sometimes more strategic, that wars get fought may not be publicly and politically sellable, and purported missions that can be sold may not be achievable.

The Vietnam War was purportedly fought to save South Vietnam from communist conquest, but from the beginning of that war policy-makers in the Johnson administration did not think achievement of that goal was likely.

McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, put the odds of winning the war as low as 25 percent. He told President Johnson in a memo in February 1965, however, that a major military effort was nonetheless worthwhile because it would “damp down the charge that we did not do all that we could have done, and this charge will be important in many countries, including our own.”

It was the familiar theme about upholding U.S. credibility, a theme one hears today in discussions of the U.S. role in Afghanistan.

Disingenuous rationales for wars can have their own problems, but whether a leader believes in the officially declared mission is less important than whether the actual objectives of fighting a war are valid, achievable, and worth the cost. The Johnson administration policymakers made the wrong decision in 1965, leading to three years of escalation that not only demonstrated that the pessimism about winning the war was well-founded but also included most of what would be 58,000 American deaths in the war.

The makers of surges in Iraq and Afghanistan probably made the wrong decisions. First, because the politically driven actual reasons for the surges were not valid actions on behalf of the national interest: George W. Bush wanted to salvage a temporary modicum of stability to have something to show for the blunder of launching the war, and Obama wanted to show he wasn’t a wimp.

And second, because neither surge has bought long-term political stability and accommodation in either Iraq or Afghanistan, with the current violence in Anbar being an especially salient demonstration of this in Iraq. But Obama, after the blip of the surge in Afghanistan, has made the right decision in resuming withdrawal.

The single most consequential war decision for Americans since those concerning Vietnam in the 1960s was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In contrast to Obama, who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, Gates was on the wrong side of that issue. He claims in the book that he does not know what he would have recommended to Bush at the time, but in his confirmation hearing to be Defense Secretary he stated that he supported the invasion.

In the get-with-the-program hothouse that was the Bush administration during its march toward war, and considering how Gates responded to the similarly strong anti-Soviet imperative of the Reagan administration, it is highly unlikely that he would have expressed in office any more skepticism about launching the war than he did as a private citizen.

Books that paint a picture of a single righteously indignant official manning the barricade against politically crazy and dysfunctional Washington do not teach us much of anything about how Washington works or about making better decisions about war and peace in the future.

Those seeking retrospective insight from a former Secretary of Defense would do better to consult the book Robert McNamara wrote about the Vietnam War. That book had nothing to do with personal reputation enhancement; the author fully accepted that he was a major part of the collective sinking into a tragic debacle. And because of that, his observations are honest and genuinely insightful, not only about the Vietnam War experience but about national security decisions yet to be made.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “Robert Gates’s Blame-Shifting Memoir

  1. queenvictrola
    January 13, 2014 at 15:28

    Why did Gates get the Congressional Medal of Honor?
    Consider that “war” where somebody “wins” and somebody “loses” is antithetical. There are no winners in war. Yet we are all conditioned to believe that there are. Where does the “enemy” go after the war ends? Home. What Gates granted the 43 presidency (and every presidency after him) was UNENDING war —that is a war that can go on forever because it is a war on a thing, “terror”, which by definition is NOT a person, country, political party, etc. It is nebulous. As long as the CIA keeps making more terrorists, the war(s) goes on unabated. It is a simple idea for simpletons. Simpletons, 43 (and every parasitic president to go after him) believe we are. The cherry on the cake that Gates handed to 43 though, was the Patriot Act. So, now the war has come home in a big way. Now everyone can be a “terrorist” and you have no rights. I contend that this is why Gates got the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was a giant “Thank You” for a giant lie, well told and executed.

    • F. G. Sanford
      January 13, 2014 at 16:57

      Gates didn’t get any such medal, because such a medal doesn’t exist. The “Medal of Honor” is awarded after approval by Congress for heroism in combat. To my knowledge, Gates was never in combat. The “Congressional” Medal of Honor is a misnomer. Whatever he got, it certainly wasn’t The Medal of Honor.

  2. John Hoy
    January 11, 2014 at 15:24

    Gates and McChrystal can’t both be wrong about Obama.

  3. Hillary
    January 10, 2014 at 14:54

    Last word on just how wrong Gates was —
    The once-mighty USSR crumbled into 16 independent nations in 1991 .
    Yet as late as 1989, Gates told various congressional committees that a “long, competitive struggle with the Soviet Union still lies before us” and that the “dictatorship of the Communist Party remains untouched and untouchable.”
    Just how could Gates, an ex. senior CIA Kremlinologist, have been SO WRONG ?
    But more importantly how could Gates having been so wrong and STILL make it to the top of the intelligence ladder to run the CIA in 1991…. ?

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 10, 2014 at 18:09

      Hillary your references are what I am talking about. I don’t need to buy the Gates book….you alone are giving me enough to read about this guy…thanks!

  4. Joe Tedesky
    January 10, 2014 at 13:44

    Okay, let’s all be honest, who is going to buy Robert Gates new book “DUTY”?
    Next, who cares? If your like me you will learn enough about this man reading the many things already written about him. You could start with ‘Wikipedia’, and go from there. If your also like myself you may realize who Gates is before putting to much stock into what he has to say about the Obama administration. I am just saying, who gives a flying hockey puck about this guy!

    What is more important though, is the conversion this Gates book has started. I mean I have really enjoyed reading all the reader comments, along with the various articles I have read. I learned more about Robert Gates in the last fourth eight hours than I wanted to learn. Somebody help me please!

    So, now I will go back to reading all about WWI. This year is the 100th year that WWI started, and I have made it a point to learn more about that terrible war. In fact we maybe still fighting many conflicts from that time…go figure, that’s progress?

    Lastly, I am not being critical of the news of Gates book being written about, it is important that we do learn about him. I just don’t think when our history is finally written that Gates will appear to be that important…sorry Bob!

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 10, 2014 at 14:24

      Sorry for the spelling errors;
      Conversion – conversation
      Fourth – forty
      If there’s more …I will try to do better.
      Prove read…. Read the prove …sorry!

  5. F. G. Sanford
    January 10, 2014 at 13:12

    The President gave them their chance. It was their plan. They ginned it up, and it was a loser. But, he gave them a chance to consider alternatives. They wouldn’t consider any. Gates memoir proves that they would have sandbagged The President either way, but probably much worse if he had refused the surge. This whole story is a rehash of losers trying to claim, “They didn’t let us win”, just like Viet Nam.

    Counterinsurgency warfare in defense of a corrupt government is a losing proposition whether it’s Viet Nam, Afghanistan, or Iraq. This memoir has SORE LOSER written all over it. Every loser from this fiasco that writes a memoir, from Cheney and Rumsfeld all the way down the ladder has only one motive: justifying five hundred thousand dead bodies in order to stroke their own egos. They’re the team that lost the big game, and somehow, they claim the cheerleaders just didn’t try hard enough. LOSERS, plain and simple.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 10, 2014 at 13:47

      FG you nailed it…I agree!

    • Hillary
      January 10, 2014 at 14:33

      “justifying five hundred thousand dead bodies in order to stroke their own egos.”
      F. G. Sanford
      And the sickening sight of dogs eating dead corpses on the streets of Bagdad .

      BTW the perhaps more accurate Number Of Iraqis Slaughtered In US War And Occupation Of Iraq is 1,455,590.

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