Magazine | February 24, 2014, Issue

At the Summit

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, by Robert M. Gates (Knopf, 640 pp., $35)

Robert Gates served as secretary of defense during the pivotal war years of 2006 through mid 2011. His powerful memoir is insightful, tendentious, angry, elucidating, contradictory, and honest. Gates saw it as his duty to align military strategy with national policy. The policy objective was to build secure democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates concluded that that goal was unattainable — yet he appointed commanders who fervently pursued it. This imparts a sense of drama to his memoir.

The book will be widely purchased, but thinly read, owing to its length. Gates addresses five topics: fighting wars, managing the Pentagon, counseling presidents, negotiating with Congress, and coping with crises and canny world leaders. While he packed too much into one book, students of political power will study, not just skim, this book.

His writing technique consists of extracting from his diary of 1,643 days in office ruminations and judgments based on meetings. At the top of government, information is ingested at endless meetings among a small circle of generals and civilians. According to the Great Man theory of history, those at the top do make the critical decisions, especially in war, and the masses follow. Gates subscribes to this theory, describing Washington as a gladiator pit occupied by computer avatars who can be momentarily knocked off stride, but never slain. He repeatedly cites the names of these few high-level people.

The press has rightly emphasized the book’s most damning conclusion: President Obama and his White House staff distrusted the military and wanted out of Iraq and Afghanistan, with scant concern about our troops.

“The president doesn’t trust his commander,” Gates wrote, “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.”

Gates, in contrast, genuinely loved his soldiers. His problem with the president is less about strategy than about heart: “I myself, our commanders, and our troops had expected more commitment to the cause and more passion for it from him.” Gates compares Obama unfavorably with Bush, who “had no second thoughts about Iraq, including our decision to invade.” He provides a trove of discussions, year after year, to drive home his verdict that Obama as commander-in-chief was feckless.

But how could the leader of the world’s most powerful military conclude that he had to retreat, rather than defeat a bunch of medieval tribes sitting on a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere? America was at the zenith of its power when Islamist terrorists attacked on September 11, 2001. There was nothing, it seemed, the world’s only superpower could not accomplish.

Between 2001 and 2003, President George W. Bush persuaded Congress and the body politic to launch two wars with limited goals: destroy al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and destroy the Saddam regime in Iraq, with its presumed weapons of mass destruction. Al-Qaeda escaped into Pakistan, while in Iraq no such weapons were found. In both countries, however, Bush expanded the mission into democratic nation-building.

“Freedom,” Bush declared, “is the universal gift of Almighty God.” He believed that American exceptionalism required conferring liberty on others. Two centuries earlier, the British historian Sir William Jones had devoted his life to designing a code of Western laws acceptable to Islamic tribes. He failed. “A system of liberty,” Jones concluded, “if forced upon a people invincibly attached to opposite habits, would be a system of cruel tyranny.”

Bush wasn’t alone in rejecting Jones. To act as midwife in delivering freedom, our generals sent out to the troops a counter-insurgency doctrine that declared, “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.”

By 2007, Iraq was teetering on the verge of a civil war between the majority Shiites and the minority Sunnis, who had enjoyed power under Saddam Hussein. To prevent this, Bush surged an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq, and chose General David Petraeus as the commander and Gates as the secretary of defense. 

#page#Gates writes that he and President Bush “were in lockstep on strategy with respect to Iraq.” On his first visit to Iraq, Gates endorsed the concept of soldiers as nation-builders, praising a general who argued that digging a sewer line had “far more beneficial effect than a successful military engagement.” Petraeus adroitly deployed his fresh troops and persuaded the Sunni tribes — which had been sheltering the al-Qaeda-type extremists — to join with the Americans to gain protection against the militias of the Shiite majority. By 2008, al-Qaeda was on the run. In the U.S., Gates, through political skill and determination, prevented the Democrats from derailing the successful operation. That was a singular accomplishment.

But fast-forward to today, and we see that al-Qaeda has retaken the city of Fallujah. This happened because Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has ruled as a vengeful, sectarian Shiite. His oppression of the Sunni tribes caused the resurgence of al-Qaeda.

In large measure, America allowed that, by making three giant political mistakes. First, President Bush agreed to pull out all U.S. troops by 2011. This deprived us of any leverage over the serpentine Maliki. Second, President Obama favored Maliki over his moderate opponent in a deadlocked 2010 race for prime minister. Third, Obama did not fight to change the timetable for the full withdrawal of our troops.

Gates, by staying on with President Obama, was the spanning bridge between the two presidents. He writes in the book about “the need for us to win in Iraq . . . [so that] sacrifices would not be in vain.” Yet in all three of these key and disastrous decisions, Gates is silent about his participation in any argument or action. Did he agree or disagree? What was his role? His memoir does not tell us. This omission by silence is the central flaw in the book.

As regards the other war — Afghanistan — Gates begins strongly and ends weakly. His personal goals did not align with those of his generals. In March 2009, Obama approved what Gates termed “a fully resourced counterinsurgency campaign . . . breathtaking in its ambition.” Indeed it was. The Taliban insurgents enjoyed a sanctuary along 1,500 miles of the border with Pakistan. It was equally daunting, Gates points out, that they were woven into “the political fabric” of Afghan society.

Yet as secretary of defense, he endorsed the campaign. He tells the reader that “my definition of success was much narrower than . . . the president’s.” His private objective was to “dramatically weaken the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan army.” Apparently he did not adequately transmit his view to his commanders. Deciding that “a new strategy required a new commander,” Gates selected General Stanley McChrystal, a zealous advocate of the campaign. McChrystal envisioned U.S. troops spreading out in an “inkblot” that would gradually sop up most of the 5,000 Pashtun villages. According to the general, “the conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy.” Yet Gates still clung to the goal of “rooting the Taliban out of their strongholds” and believed McChrystal intended to “devastate” the Taliban.

Not so, wrote McChrystal in his own book: “I wanted to take away any incentive that might drive commanders and their men to see killing insurgents as the primary goal.” Consider that message: convey an incentive not to kill. So how were the Taliban to be weakened or rooted out, as Secretary Gates thought he had ordered? McChrystal emphasized friendly persuasion; Gates envisioned a strategy of attrition.

Rather than confusion about war strategy, Gates believes his “biggest mistake” was not resolving high-level command issues early enough. He cites as his prime example the “parochial service concerns” of a Marine Corps that insisted on its own “battlespace — with Marine air cover and logistics.” He writes: “Petraeus said [that] getting the Marines under McChrystal’s command was the ‘Holy Grail.’”

The result of these conflicts was that, in 2010, McChrystal was replaced by Petraeus himself — but the war ground on without noticeable change. Now, after two more generals and three more years, we still don’t know what we achieved or even whether we are leaving a residual force.

#page# “If I had ever come to believe the military part [italics added] of the strategy would not lead to success as I defined it,” writes Gates, “I could not have continued signing the deployment orders.” This sentiment is expected. It would be shocking had he declared the opposite. But note the phrase “success as I defined it”: an enormous hedge, justified in light of the dodgy rhetoric of an uncommitted commander-in-chief. In terms of operational clarity, Gates never resolved what the generals were telling him with what he thought our grunts were doing on the ground. He never addressed whether we were doing what it took to instill in another army the will to fight and win, much less whether it was possible to do so. On one visit to our troops in a forlorn town called Now Zad, he wondered “whether it had been worth what it cost them.” On a broader note, he writes sadly, “On each visit I was enveloped by a sense of misery and danger and loss.”

Yet he remained upbeat. “The more time you spend in Afghanistan,” he told Obama in June 2011, “the closer to the front you get, the more optimistic people are.” 

That is debatable. It is impossible to handicap the balance of power in Afghanistan after we leave. Gates concluded that the Afghan army, ignoring the fractiousness of the central government in Kabul, can remain in the countryside to keep the Taliban at bay. He calls this “Afghanistan good enough.” This suggests a state that resembles Pakistan, not a bad outcome. The problem is that Karzai has thoroughly antagonized the American public, and, in response, Congress has cut in half the administration’s request for Afghan aid for 2014. Unfortunately, a stable Afghanistan sounds like an oxymon.

Gates’s duty as secretary of defense was to align military strategy with national policy. He failed to do so because the policy of building democratic nations in Iraq and Afghanistan was too ambitious. Could anyone have done a better job as SecDef? Highly doubtful. I wish Gates had spent considerably more time with the grunts assessing what the fighting was really all about, but at the highest level of power, that is an exceedingly hard task.

At the beginning of his tenure, Gates said that “we are in this thing to win.” At the end, he settled for not losing. He hoped that neither war would “be viewed as a strategic defeat for the United States, or as a failure with global consequences.” His hope may be fulfilled. By fighting both wars in an astonishingly expensive but half-hearted manner, we did not win. But failure has not brought severe consequences. The al-Qaeda seizure of Fallujah has been greeted with a shrug by the world press and the administration. Just another day in the Middle East. As for Afghanistan, as with South Vietnam after our troop withdrawal, our aid will shrivel. The Taliban and warlords will grab some areas. Afghanistan will be gradually ignored. The tribes will fight, electricity will flicker on and off, and we will refuse to honor visas to the United States. Does that mean we tolerate a terrorist sanctuary? No more or less so than in Yemen or Iraq.

So why did we fight for 13 years, for such meager results? Gates does not attempt to answer that. Success in human endeavor is never guaranteed. As a grunt, I fought to hold a Vietnamese village that is now Communist. I was at both battles for Fallujah and in the same miserable areas in Afghanistan as Secretary Gates. He is entirely correct in writing that our soldiers did not die in vain. And every one of our troops volunteered to serve.

One thing remains constant: America needs its guardians. Gates concludes by addressing the troops, rather than the policy, the strategy, or the high-level personages with whom he spent most of his time. “Your countrymen owe you,” Mr. Gates writes, “their freedom and their security.”

– Mr. West is a former combat Marine who has served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Over the past decade, he has made dozens of trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, been embedded widely with the U.S. military, and written five books about the two wars.

Bing West — Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College. A graduate ...

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