How This Town Grossly Misunderstands Robert Gates’ New Memoir

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Jan. 9 2014 1:48 PM

Barbarians at the Gates

How the ideologues of Washington misunderstand Robert Gates’ profound new memoir.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates answers questions from the media during a press briefing September 23, 2010 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' subtlety appears to be missed by many.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Based on the early excerpts of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ memoir, Duty, it is obvious that he has written a nuanced account of Washington in the Bush and Obama years. That complexity and subtlety comes through when, for example, he says that he never saw George W. Bush make a war decision based on politics but then adds, “although, in fairness, his sharp-elbowed political gurus were nearly all gone by the time I arrived.” He’s not so much suggesting a different truth: He simply wants readers to know precisely how far he is going with his claim. “Too many ideologues call for U.S. force as their first option,” he writes. Oh, he must be talking about Bush and the neoconservatives, you might think. No, he’s talking both about those on the left who argue for the “responsibility to protect” civilians in Libya, Syria, and Sudan and about those on the right who are ready to light up Iran. 

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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

But the early response to the book has none of the subtlety of Gates’ actual prose. There are enough damning quotes in Duty to serve any purpose, and those quotes have been weaponized and they’re detonating all over Twitter and in slapdash reviews, locking in narratives for both the right and the left.

So, if you don’t like President Obama, you quote Gates’ claims that he engaged in “wishful thinking” and lacked nerve when things went bad and that his White House micromanaged on a level with the Nixon White House. Or you can choose to note that he says the Obama White House was “determined to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work.” (Ouch.) 

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If you do like Obama, you can cite any of the several times Gates calls him “bold,” the blanket statement about his Afghanistan policies (that his every decision was right and that he frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats”), and Gates’ characterization of Obama’s call to go after Bin Laden as “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.” 

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If you like George Bush, you cite Gates’ appreciation for his sense of mission, respect for the military, and genius in turning around the Iraq War. If you don’t like him, then you can highlight that Gates affirms that the invasion of Iraq “significantly compounded” the problems in Afghanistan, implies that Bush took his eye off the ball in the war on terrorism, and says that Bush’s Afghanistan strategy was “embarrassingly ambitious” and “historically naive.”

Those using Gates’ words to bash Obama or Bush are acting out the precise pantomime that Gates hates so much and that appears to be the central target of this book. His chief worry is that “moderation is equated with lacking principles and compromise with ‘selling out.’ Our political system has rarely been so polarized and unable to execute even the basic functions of government.” The ideologues tweezing snippets out of the reviews of Gates’ book for their never-ending slap fight are using the secretary’s authority to make their points. But if you’re going to use his authority in that instance, then you have to sit still for his larger verdict, which is that you and the zero-sum fracas you’re engaged in are what is ruining our government.

And Gates’ message is not just that ideology and Washington grandstanding are clotting rational thought and ruining politics but that the stakes of this stupidity are measured in lives and constantly grinding sorrow. At the end of the excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, Gates talks about waking in the middle of the night haunted by wounded soldiers in military hospitals. “I would put myself in his hospital room, and I would hold him to my chest to comfort him. At home, in the night, I silently wept for him.” 

Whether Gates is right or wrong in the conclusions he reaches, his book is an attempt to argue for measured thinking and to put that measured thinking on display. This is a trait that we should encourage and try to learn from because our other choice is the fracas. The circus around the launch of Duty reminds me of Upton Sinclair’s famous line about The Jungle: “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

This presents a challenge for Gates when he officially starts his book rollout next week. When he is asked about the fracas, the controversies, the Twitter battles over Duty, he should say, “That is not what I meant at all; that is not it, at all.”

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