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Robert Gates' Duty: Too Little, Too Late, and Way Too Long

Gary North - January 09, 2014
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Robert Gates served as Secretary of Defense after the resignation of the total failure, Donald Rumsfeld. Bush kept Rumsfeld on until 2006. Bush got Robert Gates to sign on.

That was Gates' mistake. He signed on for the two-war death watch.

Today, Al Qaeda occupies Fallujah. Yet one-third of America's 4,500 troops who died in Iraq, died to capture Fallujah. But there is this difference: Al Qaeda had no presence in Iraq when Bush sent troops to invade in 2003. Saddam Hussein had the handful of Al Qaeda members under control.

That is the Rumsfeld-Gates legacy.

Now Gates has written a 600-page book, Duty. It is a self-serving attack on his former bosses. It is self-justifying in this sense: Gates presided over a two-war disaster, but he never quit in order to speak out in protest immediately after he quit.

They never do. Well, not quite never. William Jennings Bryan quit as Secretary of State in 1915, because he saw that Wilson, in the name of neutrality, was pushing the United States into the war in Europe. He refused to become responsible for pursuing such a policy, as his letter of resignation said.

Gates never spoke out when he was in power, either behind closed doors or publicly. He never said what he thought. So, he kept his job.

He recounts his thoughts during a tense 2011 meeting with Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in the White House Situation Room: "As I sat there I thought: 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."

That's what he thought, was it? But what did he do? He presided over the two wars, as he had done for four years.

In his book, we read this:

All too often during my 4½ years as secretary of defense, when I found myself sitting yet again at that witness table at yet another congressional hearing, I was tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot. The exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else. It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.

But what did he do? He sat there and took it. He did not quit. He zipped his lip.

Now he writes 600 pages of self-justification. Too late. The disasters happened on his watch. A book does not change this. Neither do extracts in the Wall Steet Journal.

I did not just have to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq and against al Qaeda; I also had to battle the bureaucratic inertia of the Pentagon, surmount internal conflicts within both administrations, avoid the partisan abyss in Congress, evade the single-minded parochial self-interest of so many members of Congress and resist the magnetic pull exercised by the White House, especially in the Obama administration, to bring everything under its control and micromanagement. Over time, the broad dysfunction of today's Washington wore me down, especially as I tried to maintain a public posture of nonpartisan calm, reason and conciliation.

I was brought in to help salvage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--both going badly when I replaced Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006. When I was sworn in, my goals for both wars were relatively modest, but they seemed nearly unattainable. In Iraq, I hoped we could stabilize the country so that when U.S. forces departed, the war wouldn't be viewed as a strategic defeat for the U.S. or a failure with global consequences; in Afghanistan, I sought an Afghan government and army strong enough to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and al Qaeda from returning to use the country again as a launch pad for terror. Fortunately, I believe my minimalist goals were achieved in Iraq and remain within reach in Afghanistan.

Today, Al Qaeda occupies Fallujah.

It is not good enough to have minimalist goals while the invading troops are occupying the nation they invaded. The goals are supposed to be permanent.

President Bush always detested the notion, but our later challenges in Afghanistan--especially the return of the Taliban in force by the time I reported for duty--were, I believe, significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq. Resources and senior-level attention were diverted from Afghanistan. U.S. goals in Afghanistan--a properly sized, competent Afghan national army and police, a working democracy with at least a minimally effective and less corrupt central government--were embarrassingly ambitious and historically naive compared with the meager human and financial resources committed to the task, at least before 2009.

But Gates signed on anyway. The disasters of two wars happened on his watch. He is responsible for them. He could have quit. But he thought he could get credit for being a success. He couldn't. Now he writes a self-justifying book. "It's not my fault!" Yes, it is. It was.

When you can quit in protest, but you decide instead to stay as a team player on an incompetent team, you become responsible. When you then stay on as a bipartisan team player on an equally incompetent team, you have made the failure yours. As Colin Powell told Bush in 2002, before Bush invaded Iraq: "If you break it, you buy it." Gates bought it.

For his part, President Obama simply wanted to end the "bad" war in Iraq and limit the U.S. role in the "good" war in Afghanistan. His fundamental problem in Afghanistan was that his political and philosophical preferences for winding down the U.S. role conflicted with his own pro-war public rhetoric (especially during the 2008 campaign), the nearly unanimous recommendations of his senior civilian and military advisers at the Departments of State and Defense, and the realities on the ground.

But Gates said nothing. He soldiered on. He became the Republican token in Obama's cabinet. In short, Obama set him up for the fall. He could say, with justification, "I kept Gates on for continuity's sake." Yes, he did: a continuity of failure.

Today, Al Qaeda occupies Fallujah.

But I believe the major reason the protracted, frustrating Afghanistan policy review held in the fall of 2009 created so much ill will was due to the fact it was forced on an otherwise controlling White House by the theater commander's unexpected request for a large escalation of American involvement. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request surprised the White House (and me) and provoked a debate that the White House didn't want, especially when it became public. I think Obama and his advisers were incensed that the Department of Defense--specifically the uniformed military--had taken control of the policy process from them and threatened to run away with it.

Gee, it was just like Vietnam: troop commanders always need more troops. Surprise, surprise!

Today, there is no South Vietnam. Soon, the Taliban will control Afghanistan. As the Taliban says: "The Americans have the watches. We have the time."

No nation ever invades Afghanistan and holds territory for long -- not Alexander the Great, not the Mongols, not Great Britain, not the USSR. But Gates thought the USA could. Every invader thinks he can hold the territory.

He then quotes a variation of Rumsfeld's famous rule, as if Rumsfeld had not made it famous: "It is easier to get into something than to get out of it."

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike--as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran's nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Quite true. But there are long lines of highly educated men who are willing to do what Gates did: sign up to oversee these wars.

"There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do--and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response." Quite true. Gates signed up to oversee a pair of them.

"But my years at the Pentagon left me even more skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest that war is anything other than tragic, inefficient and uncertain." Really? Then why didn't he quit, and then go public when he still had some influence?

If they quit, they quit quietly. They never say a word. Then they may write a tell-all book. They do not acknowledge what should be obvious: The time to tell all is when you're in power. The second best time to tell all is just after you are fired for having told all. You go public.

Better yet, do not volunteer in the first place.

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