Famous for the decisions he made in two wars as well as for serving two presidents of opposing parties, Robert Gates’s memoir Duty leaves little room for misunderstanding how he saw people or events during his time as secretary of defense. Here are some of the juiciest bits from the memoir.
He Wasn’t Awed by Obama
Whether it was his age (his nickname in the Obama administration became Yoda) or that he was a remnant of the Bush administration, Gates writes that he initially felt somewhat out of place. When he was in meetings during the first half-year and staffers would hit the Bush team, Gates wondered, “Am I invisible?” He disapproved of their arguments that the Bush team had destroyed relations around the world, and writes that “discussions in the Situation Room allowed no room for discriminating analysis: Everything was awful, and Obama and his team had arrived just in time to save the day.”
He also was concerned about what he saw as too much of a focus on politics. During an early meeting about Afghanistan, he was disappointed that the president focused on how Democrats and Republicans in Congress would react, and that Vice President Joe Biden “was especially emphatic about the reaction of the Democratic ‘base’.” He described the White House as “running scared.”
He also found the president and vice president to be unnecessarily distrustful of the military. One salient story comes in a debate about Afghanistan, after which Biden and Obama called their decision an “order,” which shocks Gates. He writes that the “order demonstrated… the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture” and “was unnecessary and insulting, proof dispositive of the depth of the Obama White House’s distrust of the nation’s military leadership.”
He Was Unconditionally Effusive About Bush
With almost all of his criticisms from the Bush administration focused on the political staff or members of the military talking to the press, Gates is particularly effusive when it comes to the 43rd president. When describing Bush’s decision to go for the surge in Iraq, Gates says he believes it was only one of three times in history where a president “risked reputation, public esteem, credibility, political ruin, and the judgment of history on a single decision he believed was the right thing for our country.” He clearly admired Bush never looking back on it or having second thoughts. In a section where he addresses his relationships with the prominent members of the Bush White House, Gates makes clear he viewed the president as a “mature leader” who was also intellectually strong and confident in his abilities.
Hillary Opposed the Surge for Political Reasons
According to Gates (who is otherwise overflowing with praise for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), during the debate over ramping up troop levels in Afghanistan, Clinton copped to opposing the surge in Iraq for political reasons “because she was facing [Obama] in the Iowa primary.” To which the president agreed that opposition had been political.
Obama Hates Leakers
While the press has begun hitting the Obama administration, particularly the Justice Department, for what it sees as heavy-handedness, an anecdote from Gates suggests the sentiment about press leaks runs pretty high. After a story leaked in January 2009 about Israel and Iran, President Obama told Gates that he wanted a criminal investigation into the leaks.
When the McChrystal plan for Afghanistan leaked to The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, according to the memoir, the president raged to Gates, asking, “Is it a lack of respect for me?… Do they resent that I never served in the military? Do they think because I’m young that I don’t see what they’re doing?”
Obama’s Heart Wasn’t in the Afghan Surge
Gates describes the president, who along with his staff often felt railroaded by the military, as “skeptical if not outright convinced [Afghanistan] would fail.” Early on in the administration, Gates outlined for Rahm Emanuel what he believed to be a lack of public commitment by the president to the war, saying, “he needed to acknowledge that the war could take years but that he was confident we would ultimately be successful.”
He Thought Petraeus Threatened Him
It’s no surprise that things can become tense in a time of war. Gates went to Iraq in June 2007 and met with Gen. Petraeus to push harder because of an impatient Congress, and Gates writes that Petraeus responded, “You know, I could make your life miserable.” While he masked his emotions during the meeting, Gates reports he was “taken aback… by what I interpreted as a threat.”
Gates Was Conflicted on DADT
Gates writes that on one hand, he believed that closeted gays serving in the military were serving with “courage and honor—he lifted the ban on gays at the CIA because if open, agents would be less susceptible to blackmail. On the other hand, he worried about the idea that members of the armed forces were living and working together all day, every day, that a lot of its members came from conservative backgrounds, and that the military was already stressed due to two wars. What he says prompted him to act was the feeling that if he didn’t, the courts would do so and that was the worst result possible.
He Was No Fan of Harry Reid… or Nancy Pelosi
At a press conference in April 2007, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid famously declared “This war is lost,” and that “the surge is not accomplishing anything.” That didn’t sit so well with Gates, who writes that when he heard the comments, he was reminded of a Lincoln quote (which he shared with his staff): “Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, or hanged.” Ouch. He also wasn’t exactly enamored with the idea that the calls he received from Reid had to do with Air Force objections to wind farms in Nevada, and Reid pushing him to spend DoD money on irritable-bowel-syndrome research. Gates writes, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” It wasn’t the last time he would laugh about Reid. Gates writes that Reid called him during the 2008 campaign to ask some questions of Gates as a potential vice-presidential candidate.
Later, Gates went to breakfast with then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi days after she said “The president’s strategy in Iraq has failed,” and “The choice is between a Democratic plan for responsible redeployment and the president’s plan for an endless war in Iraq.” Gates argued with her that President Bush and Gen. David Petraeus had enacted a change of mission and a “sustainable path forward,” but according to him, she did not care. This led Gates to surmise that, “after all, one wouldn’t want facts and reality—not to mention national interest—to intrude upon partisan politics, would one?” Later, Pelosi is briefed on the timetable for drawdowns in Iraq, during which she was informed that roughly 50,000 troops would remain in Iraq through 2011. Gates describes that she “alternately looked like she had swallowed an entire lemon and like she was simply going to explode.”
Ambassador Ryan Crocker Proved Prescient
Nicknamed “Sunshine” by the president for his painfully realistic portrayals of the struggles in Iraq, then-Ambassador Ryan Crocker offered what is now—with news of al Qaeda strongholds in Fallujah and the worst violence since 2006—an awfully prophetic assessment to Gates and Bush. Crocker told them that “if we walk away, there will be a humanitarian disaster on the scale of Rwanda, it will open the way to al Qaeda to return to ungoverned spaces, and it will open the way for Iran with consequences for all Arab states.”
He Worried About Saudi Arabia and Israel’s Influence
During his time as secretary of defense, Gates says one of his main goals was to keep the U.S. from entering another military conflict while Afghanistan and Iraq were still raging. However, on issues like Iran and Syria, Gates faced some in the White House (notably then-Vice President Dick Cheney) who wanted to use military action to “solve” problems in those countries. While Gates says he is a strong supporter of Israel, he writes that he “worried about the influence of the Israelis and the Saudis in the White House… and their desire to have problems like Iran ‘taken care of’ while Bush was still president.”
Later, during a debate over support for enhanced Israeli strike capabilities, after Gates outlined his opposition, he writes that, “Cheney spoke next, and I knew what was coming … The United States should give Israel everything it wanted.”
He Loves Design
Perhaps in an attempt to keep readers engaged, Gates engages in more than a little descriptive language when it comes to design. He describes one of Saddam’s palaces covered in gold leaf and with bedrooms the size of basketball courts as “early dictator.” He refers to the Old Executive Office Building as a “gingerbread building” and spends a paragraph describing his office in the Pentagon, which is filled with what he deems “late-government” style furniture and lighting as well as antique furnishings from Ulysses S. Grant and General John J. Pershing.