Who Did Robert Gates Admire More, Obama or Bush?

Military analysis.
Jan. 14 2014 1:47 PM

Robert Gates’ Primal Scream

The furious, brilliant, bridge-burning memoir of the most effective cabinet secretary of our time.

(Continued from Page 1)

Gates blames Biden for “poisoning the well” and egging Obama on to wind down the war more quickly. But the fact is, as Gates also acknowledges, Obama sided with him, and against Biden, in almost every clash. Gates further states that Obama made “the right decision” when he announced, at the same time, a surge of 33,000 extra troops and the start of a withdrawal 18 months hence. Gates lashes out at the White House staff for politicizing everything, but he admits that “time and again,” he saw Obama “make a decision that was opposed by his political advisers” or “would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats and supportive interest groups.”

The decisive blow to his relations with Obama occurred in April 2011, just three months before Gates would step down (a decision he’d announced earlier). The two had previously agreed that Gates would restructure the defense budget but that its size wouldn’t change. Now, in the wake of the midterm elections and fiscal pressures across the board, Obama’s chief of staff, Bill Daley, informed Gates that he’d have to cut the budget after all, by another $400 billion over the next 10 years.

“I was furious,” Gates writes. “I pointed my finger at Daley and said, ‘This White House’s word means nothing!’ ” And yet, Gates must know, it’s the president’s job to set national priorities, and political changes unavoidably alter those settings; it’s the defense secretary’s job to devise the best strategy given his limited resources.

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Toward the end of the book, Gates writes that he liked almost everyone he worked with in the Obama administration and that everyone there treated him better than he’d ever been treated before. And so, he asks, “Why did I feel I was constantly at war with everybody?” He answers: “It was because … getting anything of consequence done was so damnably difficult.”

I don’t buy it. Gates was such a remarkable secretary of defense precisely because he did get so much done. In the first year of Obama’s presidency, he produced a budget that killed or drastically cut 33 major weapons programs, including the Air Force’s much-cherished Cold War chestnut, the F-22 stealth fighter plane—and he persuaded Congress to go along with all of them. The feat, he rightly boasts, was “unprecedented.” He transformed a business-as-usual Pentagon bureaucracy—seemingly oblivious to the fact that the country was fighting two wars—into a (somewhat) responsive, accountable outfit. He upended the Army’s promotion board and thus allowed some of the most creative colonels, whose careers had been thwarted, to advance to the rank of general.

He also went to bat for the troops. Some readers might roll their eyes at Gates’ many recitations of his love for the troops, of how teary he gets when he visits them in hospitals or writes condolence letters to the relatives of those killed. But these emotions are genuine. He singlehandedly shoved $16 billion in a supplemental budget so that several thousand heavily armored MRAP troop-carriers could be built and sent quickly to Iraq and Afghanistan, against the objections of all the service chiefs—and, as a result, several thousand soldiers’ and Marines’ lives were saved.* When he read of the horrors at Walter Reed hospital, he fired the secretary of the army and cleaned up the mess at once. He also fired the Air Force chief of staff, a four-star general, for slowing down production and delivery of reconnaissance drones, which in Iraq helped the troops spot roadside bombs and track down the insurgents who planted them.

On broader matters, he almost singlehandedly kept President Bush from bombing Iran and, in a series of maneuvers, helped accelerate the isolation of Dick Cheney.

Gates’ descriptions of how he accomplished these feats—the mix of cooptation and coercion that he employed—should be read by every future defense secretary, and executives of all stripes, as a guide for how to command and overhaul a large institution.

Contrary to his harrumphing about the inability to get things done, Robert Gates was probably the single most influential cabinet officer in both the Bush and Obama administrations. But then, in the final few months with Obama, he lost two battles—one over the defense budget, the other over whether to commit military forces to the revolt in Libya (he was opposed). As he puts it, “I had had a tough but—I thought—successful run for four years. The last six months were turning out very differently.” He’d grown accustomed to winning his political wars, and I suspect the shock of losing a couple of battles colored—and embittered—his memory of all the earlier conflicts and tensions, even those where he’d emerged victorious.

He started writing this memoir very soon after leaving office, perhaps too soon for the sensation to wear off. At times, one can’t help but wonder if he recognizes the full depths of his bitterness. Take Pages 392–93, where, after describing in some detail an NSC meeting on what to do if Israel attacked Iran, Gates writes:

I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting. To his closest advisers, he said, “For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decision about Israel or Iran. Joe, you be my witness.” I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.

Yet here he is, doing just that. Maybe he should have waited a year or so to gather his thoughts, if not for propriety (as some critics have suggested) then at least to gain some perspective.

Still, for all its quirks, this is a compelling memoir and a serious history. Gates’ chapters on his dealings with foreign leaders are particularly interesting, especially his accounts of Dimitri Medvedev (promising as long as he lasted), Vladimir Putin (a duplicitous return of the czars), and Benjamin Netanyahu (whom he doesn’t trust in the slightest and whose outsize influence in U.S. politics he laments). He also paints the most detailed picture we’ve seen yet of the internal debates over what to do about the Arab uprisings.

Gates writes at one point that Obama entered the White House with the worst cards that any president in modern times had been dealt. He writes several times that America’s—any one nation’s—ability to control events is severely limited. His memoir, more than anything, is the story of how he and two presidents grappled with those facts.

Correction, Jan. 14, 2014: This article previously misstated the number of MRAP troop-carriers Gates enabled the budgeting for. It was several thousand, not several hundred. (Return.)

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