Media Miss Point of the Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has written a memoir that had the chatterati in the media going ape. Apparently, the man who came in to clean up the mess left by Field Marshal Donald von Rumsfeld didn’t think much of the Obama team in which he served. He said the president was skeptical about the prospects for his own policy in Afghanistan. He said Vice President Joe Biden was wrong about even security issue for the last 40 years. He claims Hilary Clinton opposed President Bush’s surge in Iraq to boost her own presidential bid. That’s what the media are focused on. However, what is really important in these memoirs is Mr. Gates’ complaints that he could not get anything done because the American government is broken.

That parts where Mr. Gates is correct are unsurprising. For instance, Mr. Gates wrote that in 2010 President Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out. I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.” Clearly, it was all about getting out, and it certainly was so after Osama bin Laden was dead. President Obama wanted out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq was easier because it was so clearly a lost cause. In Afghanistan, he made a political calculation to boost troop levels to buy Hamid Karzai’s government time to get its act together. Mr. Karzai failed, so why stick around?

The fact that Mr. Gates was surprised and dismayed by Mrs. Clinton’s opposition to the surge says more about him than her. She is a politician, and politicians view everything in political terms. That she would oppose a military strategy based on political considerations should not be surprising any more than a fish swims in water — it is in the nature of the beast.

As for his libel of the vice president, Mr. Gates is clearly acting as an apologist for the Republican Party (recall he was a Bush appointee whom Mr. Obama kept in office). Joe Biden’s record in foreign affairs is much better than that of the entire preceding administration. He spent decades in the Senate working on things like the Balkan disaster of the 1990s, and in the 1980s, he helped keep US troops out of Central America.

However, where the memoirs are truly troublesome are not in the areas of gossip and who said what to whom when. Instead, they should be setting off alarms over what Mr. Gates believed to be his own inability to accomplish things. Here he was as Secretary of Defense with two wars on his hands, and he complains that there were obstacles everywhere. War time is not the time for the SecDef to have to beg and plead.

Yet, he writes of “the excruciating difficulty of serving as a wartime defense secretary in today’s Washington. Getting anything consequential done was so damnably difficult – even in the midst of two wars.” He says the main sources of this difficulty were bureaucratic inertia, administration in-fighting and the partisan mess that is called Congress.

The bureaucratic inertia looks to be, at first glance, his fault. At the top man at the Pentagon, any inertia should have been met with swift retribution. That, however, presumes that he knew about it. In truth, the Department of Defense may just be too damned big to manage. Quite how one fixes that while maintaining a ridiculously oversized military is hard to say.

As for the in-fighting, “All too early in the administration,” Mr. Gates writes, “suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials – including the president and vice president – became a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander-in-chief and his military leaders.” The White House wanted out of Iraq and Afghanistan while the brass wanted to stay and try to “win.” That tension was not going to go away, and it is a basic flaw in the American system. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton had a political future to consider so she wasn’t going to be a help at State — another flaw but amenable to change as it was based on individual ambition.

And as for Congress, well, the less said the better.