Gates: A Realist in an Idealist World

January 22, 2014

Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014).

The immediate headlines and subsequent political debate over the release of Robert Gates’ memoir of his years as Secretary of Defense serving two presidents from two different parties have passed.  While there is plenty to chew on in the various criticisms of both Bush and Obama administration policies and personnel, a larger question remains: How did Robert Gates—a self-described realist—fare in a Washington, D.C. policy environment defined by two decades of a loose consensus between liberal and neoconservative idealist visions that drove assumptions about America’s role in the world?

Policy realists like Gates have a preference for advancing the national interest by seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it might be, advocating restraint in the use of military force, seeking stability in important areas of the world, and advancing morals by setting the best example possible at home and abroad.  Throughout his timely narrative, Gates illustrates how these concerns guided his life in Washington, D.C., in the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Gates, for example, notes President Bush once saying that on meeting Russian president Vladimir Putin, he had looked into Putin’s eyes and “seen his soul,” whereas Gates had “looked into Putin’s eyes and, just as I expected, had seen a stone cold killer.”  Gates reports that he told Saudi King Abdullah that “what he (Abdullah) considered America’s greatest weakness – showing restraint – was actually great strength, because we could crush any adversary.”  On the Arab spring uprising in Egypt, he shows the risks of uncertainty over stability, writing:  “how can anyone know which is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of history when nearly all revolutions, begun with hope and idealism, culminate in repression and bloodshed?  After Mubarak, what?”  He notes that the United States cares about the spread of democracy and freedom abroad, but “not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression, or every crisis, can or should elicit an American response.”

In terms of its global appeal, Gates was an early advocate under President Bush of closing Guantanamo Bay, embraced the integration of gays and lesbians into the armed forces under President Obama, but also warns of the serious danger that “the rest of the world sees America, above all else, as a militaristic country too quick to launch planes, cruise missiles, and armed drones, deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned places.”

In Duty, Robert Gates challenges key liberal and neoconservative narratives about American primacy and the spread of American ideals that have driven American foreign and national security policy for the last two decades.  Gates writes that, since the Cold War’s end, “our moment alone in the sun, and the arrogance with which we conducted ourselves in the 1990s and beyond as the sole surviving super power, caused widespread resentment.”  He faults the Clinton administration for institutionalizing its worldview of liberal idealism.  But, he also faults the neoconservatives that drove President Bush, writing that anti-American sentiment was

…rekindled and exacerbated by President Bush’s “You are either with us or you are against us” strategy as we launched the war on terror.  The invasion of Iraq and subsequent revelations about renditions, prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, the detention facility at Guantanamo, and “enhanced interrogations” all fueled further anti-American feeling.

Gates makes few major strategic assessments in Duty,but where he does, he makes news.  A long-time Russia hand in the Central Intelligence Agency and key player in high-level decision-making at the end of the Cold War, Gates writes that after a 2007 exchange with Putin, he shared with President Bush his belief that

…from 1993 onward, the West, and particularly the United States, had badly         underestimated the magnitude of Russian humiliation in losing the Cold War and then in      the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which amounted to the end of the centuries-old          Russian Empire.  The arrogance, after the collapse, of American government officials,         academicians, businessmen, and politicians, in telling the Russians how to conduct their            domestic and international affairs (not to mention the internal psychological impact of           their precipitous fall from superpower status) had led to deep and long-term resentment      and bitterness…Getting Gorbachev to acquiesce to a unified Germany as a member of     NATO had been a huge accomplishment.  But moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to incorporate so many of its formerly subjugated states into NATO was a      mistake…NATO expansion was a political act, not a carefully considered military   commitment, thus undermining the purpose of the alliance and recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests.

On a related matter, neoconservatives cried foul when President Obama shifted away from Bush’s plan for missile defense in Europe towards a more functional theater-based, layered system.  Obama had “abandoned our allies” said many of these critics.  In reality, Gates writes that as early as 2008, neither Poland nor the Czech Republic wanted the system: “What I hadn’t counted on was the political opposition to the missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic…Our presumptive partners for missile defense in Europe were stiff-arming us.”  Similar cries of appeasement rang out when America did little to support Georgia in summer 2008 against a Russian invasion.  Gates, however, had sought to head off a moral dilemma advising his counterpart that Georgia “…‘must not get into a conflict with Russia you cannot win’ and that Georgian forces needed to cease hostilities and withdraw to defensible positions.”  While Russia had acted brutally, Gates notes that with Russia and Georgia, “Both parties have been undisciplined with the truth in their dealings with us.”

Perhaps most unsettling in terms of strategy and policy is Robert Gates’ observation that during the Bush administration, through Vice-President Richard Cheney, Israel and Saudi Arabia “had a direct pipeline into the White House.”  On Iran, Gates shows that Saudi pressure to launch a full-scale military attack on Iranian military targets—“not just the nuclear sites”—was a serious problem.  Gates writes that King Abdullah “was asking us to shed American blood, but at no time did he suggest that any Saudi blood might be spilled.”  America, Gates believes, was being asked “to send its sons and daughters into a war with Iran in order to protect the Saudi position in the Gulf and the region, as if we were mercenaries.”  In debates over Israeli pressure to attack a Syrian facility with nuclear weapons potential, Gates writes that the Israeli prime minister was “asking for our help on the reactor but giving us only one option:  to destroy it.  If we didn’t do exactly what he wanted, Israel would act and we could do nothing about it.  The United States was being held hostage to Israeli decision making.”  Gates, a longtime supporter of Israel, nevertheless concludes that “our interests are not always identical…I’m not prepared to risk vital American strategic interests to accommodate the views of hard-line Israeli politicians.”  Gates’s successor, Chuck Hagel, almost failed to be confirmed in the Senate for advocating similar concerns about Israel and American national interests.

Afghanistan looms heavily in the book.  And, it is here that the realism of Robert Gates is tested and conflicted.  Gates began the Afghanistan review process in 2009 highly skeptical, but eventually aligned himself with advocates of escalation.  Gates was regularly frustrated by White House resistance to General Stanley McChrystal’s surge plan, which to Gates suggested a lack of trust in his judgment and that of the military.  However, there was sound reason to be skeptical.  The plan that was supported by counterinsurgency advocates in and out of government contradicted the treasured counterinsurgency theory; with an unreliable partner, an insufficient troop-to-population ratio, inadequate civilian surge elements, poor allied buy-in, and no sustainable support at home – all without which a counterinsurgency campaign could not be successful.  Worse, the surge into southern Afghanistan would risk destabilizing Pakistan, a far more important country with nuclear weapons.

Some members of the administration who challenged the military on Afghanistan assumptions are frequently characterized by Robert Gates as being politically motivated.  Yet, at the same time, “group think” may have pervaded senior military thinking over the value of counterinsurgency concepts.  No options were brought to the review process by senior military leadership that did not include more troops in Afghanistan.  Alternative options like a pure counter-terrorism approach or a containment approach were dismissed as unworkable.  Only once in the book does Gates suggest doubts about the policy he advocated for, writing:  “I wondered if we had gotten the strategy and resources right in Afghanistan too late…after patience there and in the United States had run out.  Had the diversion of attention and resources to the invasion of Iraq sown the seeds for future failure in Afghanistan?”  Alas, while opponents expressed this very point in the policy review, this reflection came to Gates only after the decisions were already made.

Meanwhile, recommendations by U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry (a retired general who had commanded the NATO mission in Afghanistan), are described by Gates as “ridiculous.”  Eikenberry had more experience in the military, economic, political, and diplomatic dynamics of Afghanistan than General McChrystal – although Eikenberry also had a very difficult relationship with the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.  Yet, Eikenberry’s interventions and apparent protection by the White House are nonetheless dismissed.  Eikenberry was doing his job and using his expertise to inform his recommendations.  That was, instead, described as insubordination with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying Eikenberry was a “huge problem.”

To Gates, much of his concern was driven by a deep commitment to honor the sacrifices of American troops, and he earnestly sought to give them a policy worthy of their efforts.  Those who disagreed on the policy also had similarly honorable motives, but they were, the book suggests, too easily dismissed at the expense of serious policy considerations.  For example, Gates rightly notes that once in place, the military side of the Afghanistan surge was working relatively well.  Yet, he worried about the problems with the political leadership in Kabul and the inadequate civilian side of the strategy.  He fails, however, to recognize that the entire strategy could reasonably have been questioned because the mission depended on these key additional elements.  Ultimately, Gates does offer, in retrospect, that “all of us at the senior-most level did not serve the president well in this process.  Our ‘team of rivals’ let personal feelings and distrust cloud our perceptions and recommendations.”

Gates concludes:

Those who ask about exit strategies or what happens if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers argue we must act militarily – as they did when advocating an invasion of Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iranian nuclear sites.

Yet, when serious experts tried to do this on Afghanistan, these critical voices were perhaps too readily dismissed in favor of a strategy that was riddled with assumptions and contradictions.  Gates wisely writes:  “I believe that a president’s senior advisers always owe him as many options as possible and have an obligation to consider what might be done should a plan fail.”  However, there is not a lot of evidence that this maxim was fully applied to the 2009 decision to make Afghanistan into America’s longest war – although Gates also rightly points to a poorly working National Security Council system – which at the end of the day is the responsibility of the President.

Critics of Robert Gates miss a vital contribution of his book.  Duty provides unique insight into a decision-maker’s humanity and the emotional toll that the call to public service takes.  In a time when official Washington disgusts most Americans, we all might pause to reflect on the service of civilian professionals and those in the armed services who devote their lives (and those of their families) to advancing our national security. They do it not for recognition, but for love of country.  Robert Gates embodies and personifies that experience, and this is why his book is so important. What might occasionally sound to the reader like disrespect for important institutions and processes of government Gates is, instead, offering as an honest telling of how he felt as a person in that particular moment.  This human story provides the reader with a unique insight and gives voice to the many who have sacrificed for our nation.

If there is a major omission, it is that Gates offers too little focus on some of the greatest strategic questions of the day.  He devotes a scant amount of pages to discussion of China, which, ironically may prove the strategic costs of time and attention focused on Iraq and Afghanistan at the very moment that America’s primary interests had shifted to Asia.  Remarkably, he writes only one sentence about the Asia pivot—America’s most significant change in strategic thinking in twenty years and one that reflects a major return to realism in U.S. foreign and defense policy.  Gates has very little to say about the decision to invade Iraq, or the degree to which stability in Afghanistan remains a national interest.  He indicates an appreciation for the economic challenges that confronted President Obama and his team, yet, he does not acknowledge how the doubling of the defense budget since 2001 or two unpaid for wars costing trillions of dollars has undermined the domestic foundations of American power while also incentivizing free-riding among allies.

Robert Gates felt more comfortable in the Bush administration, but that should not be read as a political sentiment.  By 2006, most of the neoconservative ideologues had left government, Cheney was isolated, and a more pragmatic group of policy veterans were in place. Bush is, however, generally heralded for his surge commitment, because as Gates writes, “he trusted his own judgment more than that of his most senior professional military advisers.”  Gates appears to admire that Bush had “no second thoughts about Iraq, including the decision to invade…After six years as president, he knew what he knew and rarely questioned his own thinking.”  Critics of Gates will likely ask why it was admirable that Bush had no apparent reflection on what many think was America’s greatest strategic mistake in its history—the invasion of Iraq—yet, a problem when Obama had reflective doubts about the wisdom of the course he had chosen in Afghanistan.  At the same time, Gates was understandably frustrated (especially over the Libya war, which he deemed to be not in America’s national interest) by liberal idealists around Obama like Samantha Power who advocated for military intervention to advance morals, but without practical understanding of the military implications of her doctrine of a “responsibility to protect.”  Gates, who would be responsible for implementing liberal or neoconservative impulses to intervene in other lands, left office understandably “…running out of patience on multiple fronts, but most of all with people blithely talking about the use of military force as though it were some kind of video game.”

Robert Gates left government with a sense of loss for the American center in politics and a deep concern about the inability of Washington—especially Congress—to govern itself.  Alas, he does not offer America any special fix for Washington’s dysfunction – which is perhaps the greatest Achilles heel for America’s future global role.  He does warn the public that when confronted with a tough problem abroad, America’s leaders “have too often been too quick to reach for a gun – to use military force…I believe,” Gates concludes, “…the use of force should always be a last resort and our objectives clearly and realistically defined…our national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.”   With his experience, call to service, and efforts to have realism guide a more pragmatic route through Washington, D.C., policymaking, Americans can learn important lessons from Gates who is now in the role of teacher.  Let us hope, as students of our national destiny, we are all listening.


Sean Kay, Ph.D. is Director of the Arneson Institute for Practical Politics and Public Affairs, and also Robson Professor of Politics and International Studies Chair at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of Global Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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