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4 April 2014, Gateway House

Book review: Igniting a debate on U.S. war policy

‘Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War’ paints an unflattering and scary picture of the workings of Washington. The book stresses that U.S. presidents have too often been too quick to use military force

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“Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of,” Robert Gates, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, reminds us. He quotes Winston Churchill as having said in 1942, in the midst of World War II: “Never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that, once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and unforgettable events.”

Gates is often reminded of the truth of this statement as he recounts, in a direct, impassioned and sometimes emotional manner, his four-and-a-half years as head of the U.S. Department of Defense, from 2006-2011. The department controls an annual budget of $700 billion, employs three million people, and was engaged in two wars during Gates’s tenure.

One of his acutest observations is that the U.S.’s “foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.”  After serving eight presidents and seeing the working of the Congress and the White House from close quarters, the main message of his highly readable book is that “American Presidents, confronted with a tough problem abroad, have too often been too quick to reach for a gun – to use military force.”

Gates is aware of the need for America to fulfil its global “responsibilities” as the “indispensable nation” and believes that few international problems can be addressed without its leadership but, he cautions, “…not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression, or every crisis can or should elicit an American military response.” Here he cites the example of President Dwight Eisenhower, who resisted calls for preventive nuclear war against both Russia and China; implicit in that observation is his criticism of recent U.S. presidents, who have all too swiftly jumped into war.

The author’s memoirs provide an insight into the inner workings of Washington. He brings an insider’s view and paints a picture of the workings of the administration that is far from flattering and downright scary for the rest of the world.

Bob Woodward, in his well-regarded book Obama’s Wars, gave us an initial glimpse of decision making in Washington. Woodward depicted President Barack Obama as being cynical about the surge in Afghanistan, a decision that was imposed upon him; he argues that Obama was led toward it by his advisers, and not by any personal conviction. Gates complements Woodward’s effort. While Gates expresses a personal respect for Obama, he remains appalled at the political calculations that lay behind every decision, and is shocked that in 2007 both Obama and then Senator Hillary Clinton had opposed the Iraq surge because of political calculations.

Obama inherited both wars. Perhaps that explains Gates’s statement: “One quality I missed in Obama was passion, especially when it came to the two wars.” But he reassures the reader that he “never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.”

Gates is at his harshest in his critique of members of the U.S. Congress, the majority of whom he characterises as “uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities, micro-managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and re-election) before country.”

He is equally critical of the Department of Defense and says he was shocked to realise that its personnel completely lacked a sense of total commitment: “It was one thing for the country and much of the executive branch of government not to feel involved in the war, but for the DoD – the ‘department of war’ – that was unacceptable.”  At the Pentagon behemoth, he found no particular “sense of urgency, concern, or passion about a very grim situation…The fundamental erroneous assumption was that both wars would be short and that responsibility for security could quickly be handed off to Iraqi and Afghan forces.”

After the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon and the Department of Defense, the target of Gates’ harshest criticism is Vice President Joe Biden, who, while thoroughly likeable, “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

The author’s appraisal of George Bush as being “much more intellectually curious than his public image” may come as a surprise to many readers, and Gates reminds us that Bush had “strong convictions about certain issues, such as Iraq, and trying to persuade him otherwise was a fool’s errand.”

Gates has a doctorate in Russian and Soviet history, and was director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the early 1990s. He was settled into a new life as President of Texas A&M University when George Bush called him in 2007, offering him the top job at the Pentagon, a call he felt he could not turn down given the U.S. involvement in two wars.

Throughout, the book is tinged with compassion for the troops who served on the front lines; the memoirs are laced with Gates affection toward them and their families. He says that he accepted the job “because all those kids out there were doing their duty, I had no choice but to do mine”. He admits to becoming emotionally attached to them; even thinking about the funerals at Arlington and visiting the sick in hospitals would make him lose his composure. When he realised that he was beginning to regard protecting them – saving their lives – as his biggest priority, he knew he had lost objectivity and it was time to leave.

Gates’s book is on the New York Times best-seller list and quotes from it are being hotly debated on television shows, but the real question is: can the author’s insights really change anything? The answer, unfortunately, is no. Iraq is descending into complete chaos. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a man Obama “cannot stand,” is refusing to sign an agreement with the U.S., and the U.S. is preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Inevitably though, the book has also ignited fresh debate on the Obama White House and the National Security staff who took “micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level.”  But while the book is a riveting account of how Washington functions, we cannot hope that a dysfunctional U.S. Congress and a hide-bound Department of Defense will change anytime soon.

‘Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War’. Robert M. Gates. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2014.

Meera Kumar is a New York-based public relations professional. She has worked with the Asian Development Bank, the State University of New York, New York University, and several Fortune 20 companies. She started her career as a journalist writing for various media outlets in Southeast Asia, including the ‘Bangkok Post’ and ‘The Nation.’

This review was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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