Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says his criticism of President Obama is more nuanced than , Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, would have you believe.
In a long and surprisingly frank interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, Gates talked about his relationship with the commander in chief and his rivalry with Vice President Joe Biden, and described a deep rift between the approaches of senior military leadership and Obama's young Cabinet.
Part II of the 'Morning Edition' conversation with Robert Gates
Gates, the only secretary of defense in U.S. history to keep his job with a newly elected president, said Obama was always kind to him personally and that Obama always made "decisions based on what he thought was in the best interest of U.S. national security."
However, he said, he always felt Obama thought the military was trying to force his hand on certain decisions. Gates explained that early in Obama's first term, generals and other high-ranking officials were making public statements essentially saying their strategy was the only one that would work, leaving the impression that Obama had no other choices. The suspicion that resulted, Gates said, was only fueled by the president's Cabinet.
An example of that, Gates said, was the surge in Afghanistan. , that's the part of Gates' book that has stirred the most controversy, because he implied that Obama lacked passion and approved the 2009 troop surge "believing the strategy would fail."
Gates said Obama didn't go into the surge believing it would fail; instead he was led to that belief by his Cabinet and especially by Biden.
That's when Steve asked Gates about perhaps the most explosive statement in his book: that Biden has been wrong about every foreign policy issue for 40 years.
"First of all, I think it's fair to say that particularly on Afghanistan, the vice president was my — he and I were on opposite sides of the fence on this issue.
"And he was in there advising the president every day. He was, I think, stoking the president's suspicion of the military. But the other side of it is, frankly, I believe it. The vice president, when he was a senator — a very new senator — voted against the aid package for South Vietnam, and the — that was part of the deal when we pulled out of South Vietnam to try and help them survive. He said that when the, when the Shah fell in Iran in 2009 — 1979, rather — that that was a step forward for progress toward human rights in Iran. He opposed virtually every element of President Reagan's defense buildup. He voted against the B-1, the B-2, the MX and so on. He voted against the first Gulf War. So on a number of these major issues, I just — I, frankly, over a long period of time, felt that he had been on the wrong — he'd been — I think he had been wrong."
Perhaps one of the more insightful parts of the interview was when Gates talked about the young members of Obama's National Security Council.
He described a clash of cultures in which those young members eschewed the chain of command. Gates, and whose service dates back to 1966 when he joined the CIA, said he had a "different world outlook and a different experience."
Here's part of the exchange:
INSKEEP: You seem considerably less respectful of the president's staff than you were of the president himself.
GATES: Well, I had a lot of battles with those folks. And, frankly, my attitudes were shaped by the fact that I worked in the White House on the National Security Council staff and as deputy national security adviser for nearly nine years under four presidents. And I had certain ideas about how the national security staff and how the White House staff ought to comport themselves in discussions on national security and military issues. And let's just say that the way it worked under — in the Obama White House — was not anything like I had seen before.
I had worked for probably three of the most significant and toughest national security advisers in our history: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. And there were things that went on in the Obama White House that, under those three guys, I am confident would have been a firing offense, such as direct calls from NSC staff members to four-star generals and so on. That just wouldn't have been allowed.
INSKEEP: Oh, they should have gone through the chain of command, you think, or through the hierarchy?
GATES: Absolutely — absolutely.
INSKEEP: And they were effectively giving orders or going around their own nominal bosses on the staff? That's what you're saying?
GATES: Well, I think the key is what you said. They were going outside the chain of command. It's not appropriate for somebody on the National Security Council staff to be in direct contact with combatant commanders.
Gates did not lay all the blame on Obama and his Cabinet. He also talked about his failures.
"At the end of the book, I also point out that I think we all did a disservice to President Obama, because the debate on Afghanistan became so divisive that the opportunities to reach across those differences I think were missed," Gates said.
"I fault myself for not reaching out more to the vice president to see where we could find common ground, because at the end of the day, in a number of important respects, I don't think our positions were that far apart. But because of the environment, because of the suspicion, because of the — just the flavor of the debate and the difficulty between the Department of Defense and the National Security Council staff, I think that those edges were sharper than they needed to be, and that's partly my responsibility."
Much more of Steve's interview with Gates is on Monday's Morning Edition. to find a local NPR member station that carries the program. We'll also post the as-aired version of the interview on this post. .
Update at 9:55 a.m. ET, Jan. 13: Now that the audio of Morning Edition's as-broadcast conversation with Gates is available, we've added it — in two parts, as they did on the radio. To simplify our layout, we've removed the small clips from the conversation that we posted earlier. Those moments are included in the Morning Edition clips.
Martin Jacques in When China Rules The World: The End Of The Western World And The Birth Of A New Global Order (2009) lends weight to Robert Gates arguments on how a wars of choice bankrupt democracies, which to me is a twice-told-tale. He writes that following 9/11, the United States not only saw itself as the sole superpower but also attempted to establish a new global role, which reflected that preeminence. The neoconservative think-tank Project for the New American Century, established in 1997 by among others, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, adopted a statement of principles, which articulated the new doctrine and helped prepare the ground for the Bush II administration: PNAC-----Statement of Principles
As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s preeminent power. Having led the west to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests?
Such a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today. But it is necessary if the United States is to build on the successes of this past century and to ensure our security and our greatness in the next.
Elliott Abrams Gary Bauer William J. Bennett Jeb Bush Dick Cheney Eliot A. Cohen Midge Decter Paula Dobriansky Steve Forbes Aaron Friedberg Francis Fukuyama Frank Gaffney Fred C. Ikle Donald Kagan Zalmay Khalilzad I. Lewis Libby Norman Podhoretz Dan Quayle Peter W. Rodman Stephen P. Rosen Henry S. Rowen Donald Rumsfeld Vin Weber George Weigel Paul Wolfowitz
In 2004 the influential neoconservative Charles Krauthammer wrote:
On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union died and something new was born, something utterly new—a unipolar world dominated by a single superpower unchecked by any rival and with decisive reach in every corner of the globe. This is a staggering development in history, not seen since the fall of Rome.
Errors Committed By Neo-conservative Armed Chair Generals
The Bush presidency’s foreign policy marked an important shift compared with that of previous administrations: the war on terror became the new imperative, America’s relations with Western Europe were accorded reduced significance, the principle of national sovereignty was denigrated and that of regime-chance affirmed, culminating in the invasion of Iraq.
Far from the United States presiding over a reshaping of global affairs, however, it rapidly found itself beleaguered in Iraq and enjoying less global support than at any time since 1945. The exercise of overwhelming military power proved of little effect in Iraq but served to squander the reserves of soft power—in Joseph S. Nye’s words, ‘the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies ‘—that the United States had accumulated since 1945. Failing to comprehend the significance of deeper economic trends, as well as misreading the situation in Iraq, the Bush administration overestimated American power and thereby overplayed its hand [because of the advice of the Neocons in the Kitchen Cabinets of both Bush and VP Cheney], with the consequence that its policies had exactly the opposite effect to that which had been intended: instead of enhancing the US’s position in the world, Bush’s foreign policy seriously weakened it. The neo-conservative position represented a catastrophic misreading of history.
Gates 'Immediately' Became Emotionally Attached To Troops
Steve Inskeep continues his conversation with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about his new memoir, Duty. Gates discusses his personal relationship with the armed forces and the intense emotional toll of being secretary of defense at a time when the nation is conducting two wars.
Let's hear a little more from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. We've been talking about his critique of the Obama administration that he once served. His memoir "Duty" also offers a personal glimpse of Gates' growing distress while doing his job. He writes that during four-and-a-half years at the Pentagon, under two presidents, he became deeply, emotionally attached to the troops. He identified with them so strongly that he now wants to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, near fallen troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates says, in the end, he was too attached, which is why he retired.
ROBERT GATES: I was focused on the strain on our troops and on their families. They'd been at war for 10 years. And I came to realize, in the early spring of 2011, that my preoccupation, my priority had become protecting them from further sacrifice, perhaps at the expense of hard-headed objectivity in terms of the use of our military.
INSKEEP: You are talking about something that is difficult to say outright. But you're essentially saying that if you're going to be a national official in a position of authority, you have to be prepared to get some of your troops killed, maybe many of them, if you feel that serves the national interest.
GATES: Well, and I was prepared to do that. If there were an outright threat to the United States or to our interests or our allies, I would be the first in line to argue for the use of military force. It just seemed to me that some of the areas where we were looking at potential conflict were more in the category of wars of choice. And it was those that I was trying to protect the troops from.
INSKEEP: What happened when you, as any secretary of defense would have to, began sending notes to the families of service members killed in action?
GATES: Well, I was determined that these young people would not just become statistics for me. And so I started out by handwriting parts of the condolence letters, and even then that wasn't enough, I felt. And so then I started asking every time one of these packets came to me, that it have a picture of the soldier or sailor, airman or Marine who'd been killed, along with the hometown news, so that I knew, you know, what their coaches and their parents and their brothers and sisters and teachers were saying about them, so I felt like I had some personal knowledge about each one of them. And I would write those condolence letters every evening.
INSKEEP: And that became difficult after a while?
GATES: Well, it didn't take too long. I think that, quite honestly, in those evening sessions, writing the condolence letters, there probably wasn't a single evening in nearly four-and-a-half years when I didn't weep.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about that broader question of the cost of war. You write about one decision you were involved in that you felt - although it's hard to prove - that it had life and death consequences for people. What was the decision you faced?
GATES: Well, it was really, when the surge was launched, there were two choices. We didn't have enough troops, so the question was whether you shortened their tours at home, or whether you lengthened their tours in the combat zone. And in one of the toughest decisions I made as secretary, I made the decision to lengthen the combat tours to 15 months. And I knew what the costs of that would be for the troops and their families.
INSKEEP: And let's be explicit about the costs. You linked this, in your mind, to the increase in suicides, of the problem with suicides in the military.
GATES: Well, I have no statistics to prove it, but I believe that those 15-month tours had to have aggravated the post-traumatic stress problem and probably the suicide problem.
INSKEEP: Previously, it had been a year or 13 months or six months, depending on the branch of service. And it was just a little longer, and you think that made a difference in wearing people down.
GATES: I think, as one of my junior military assistants put it, 15 months brought into play the law of twos: you miss two Christmases, two birthdays, two anniversaries and so on. And I think that had a consequence.
INSKEEP: What is the lesson, then, of decisions like that that you had to make that future decision-makers should take away from your experience?
GATES: I think it goes back to the very beginning of our discussion, and that is: You do have to be prepared to make the hard decisions, knowing what the consequences will be for the troops, whether it's sending them into battle or extending their tours. Part of the job of being secretary of defense in war is having to be strong enough to make the decisions that are important in terms of achieving our national security objectives and protecting us.
INSKEEP: Is there any decision you'd take back from those four-and-a-half years?
GATES: Well, I'm as critical of myself in the book as I am of anybody else. I also point out that I think we all did a disservice to President Obama, because the debate on Afghanistan became so divisive, that the opportunities to reach across those differences, I think, were missed. And I fault myself for not reaching more to the vice president to see where we could find common ground. Because at the end of the day, in a number of important respects, I don't think our positions were that far apart. But because of the environment, because of the suspicion, because of just the flavor of the debate and the difficulty between the Department of Defense and the National Security Council staff, I think that those edges were sharper than they needed to be, and that's partly my responsibility.
INSKEEP: Secretary Gates, thanks very much.
GATES: Thank you.
INSKEEP: His new book is called "Duty." And you can find a transcript of our interview with Gates and NPR.org.
Jacob Heilbrunn in They Knew They Were Right: The Rise Of The Neocons (2008) also lends weight to former Secretary of Defense argument about Congress. Our Congress no longer represents the will of the people, but only the will of the GOP/T-Party. The T-Party is the Neocons in a new guise. Heilbrunn writes that it will take an insurgency inside the GOP itself to dislodge the neoconservatives, he is inadvertently writing about the T-Party. But he states, whether the old guard in the GOP has the mettle for that battle is dubious. There has been no real attempt to create new generations of realists to replace the Scowcrofts and Bakers and Schlesingers.
The contrast between the Nixon Center event honoring Brent Scowcroft in 2006 and the AEI dinner for Bernard Lewis was striking. At the former, elderly veteran of the Nixon, ford, and Bush administrations reminisced about their glory days. [Former] Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, one of the few realists left in the GOP, offered generalities about Iraq. Meanwhile, at the AEI dinner, none of the neoconservatives displayed much doubt about their own influence.
Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, for example, was dumbfounded by neoconservative serenity, noting that “the overall mood of self-celebration was unabated. From the stage, one caught no hint that matters were not working out as anticipated. All rose to salute the arrival of Dick and Lynne Cheney, herself a longtime fellow at the institute.” The Weekly Standard Matt Labash has summed up neoconservative influence this way:
While all these hand-wringing Freedom Forum types talk about objectivity, the conservative media likes to rap the liberal media on the knuckles for not being objective. We’ve created this cottage industry in which it pays to be un-objective. It pays to be subjective as much as possible. It’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too. Criticize other people for not being objective. Be as subjective as you want. It’s a great little racket. I’m glad we found it actually.
But it’s more than a racket, Labash’s jocularity aside. The sheer scale of the neoconservative network, which includes the AEI [Home of War Criminals and Nazicons who use Mein Kampf’s scientific racism and publish it as social science research]; the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Weekly Standard [whose only modern publishing rival was Der Stormer]; the Committee o the Present Danger, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, means that it has become part of the Washington establishment.
In February 2007, at the Munich conference on Security Policy, Senator Joseph Lieberman declared, “What we are fighting is an ideology—the totalitarian ideology of radical Islam, as brutal and hostile to personal freedom as the communism we fought and defeated in the last century,” [forgetting the China was financing two Neocons backed wars for the US]. The problem with such apocalyptic statements is that they endow a disparate group of terrorists with an importance that they simply do not deserve.
Owen Harries, the former editor of the National Interest [the successor to Irving Kristol’s Public Interest], had it right when he said it trivializes the cold war to make such overblown comparisons. But Senator John McCain, a close friend of William Kristol’s, has essentially the same message as Lieberman. No one could do more than McCain to revive the neoconservative cause. It’s also the case, as a prominent New York neoconservative observes, that being “beleaguered plays into all the old psychological reflexes. Everyone’s decided the neocons are wrong. That’s vindication.” The neocons are thus unbowed.
At the annual May Commentary dinner [another feast of blood], John Bolton regaled a receptive audience about the need to engage in further regime changes around the globe. And Norman Podhoretz feted Henry Kissinger at the dinner, to the extent of bussing his erstwhile adversary. The neocons aren’t breaking ranks; they’re closing them, [and have morphed into the T-Party].
The neocons’ liberal detractors, however, persist in acting as though neoconservatism were a phenomenon that has run its course. They crowed, for example, when the Project for the New American Century closed down in the summer of 2006. But don’t be fooled. Prophets [of doom and destruction] are not easily dissuaded from their crusade. They may regroup, reassess, and retrench. But these reckless minds, to borrow a term from Mark Lilla, aren’t going away—Quite the contrary.
Robert Gates is making headlines with his new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." Known for his poker face, the former defense secretary has published a strikingly candid account of his years of service under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey says the U.S. public, and even its leaders, know little about how military power can be used. He says the disconnect is most glaring when comes to this: What can the U.S. military achieve in places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria? http://www.npr.org/2014/01/17/263333207/chairman-of-joint-chiefs-wa...
THE NEO-CONSERVATIVES STILL CONTROL GLOBAL ORDER
Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke in America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (2004) also add weight to Robert Gate’s arguments and why is book is so prescient. When summarizing how the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution have been instrumental in connecting policy analysts, Republican Party officials, and conservative scholars for years, the ask, “Confused?
One could explore the alleyways of Washington’s neoconservative labyrinth indefinitely. Over the 1990s, Washington’s neoconservative establishment grew into a far-reaching, well-funded, and powerful intellectual-political matrix in the shadow of the Clinton White House. Groups such as the PNAC also forged links with social conservatives such as Gary Bauer and William Bennett.
Christian Right groups such as Empower America and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy (FDOD) became involved in pushing for a conservative internationalism overseas. In building on the biblical foundations for an apocalyptic confrontation in the Middle East, the Christian right came to support the neo-conservative agenda concerning Israel after having little interest in foreign policy during the 1980s and the early 1990s. Empower America and the FDOD subsequently joined the neo-conservative support of Israel’s Likud Party.
However, the efforts of neo-conservatives to build a shadow defense establishment in the 1990s differed from other movements of the political right. The Republican victory in 1994 brought in Speaker of the House of Representative, Newt Gingrich, who represented a new and emerging political force in the Republican Party, [the 113th of Obstructionism that we are now living with]. Sympathetic to the ideas and values of the Bible Belt, it drew support from disaffected Democrats, including both those who supported a stronger national security policy and those who had been first disaffected by Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965.
There was a big difference between the Gingrich conservatives and Christian Right, and the neo-conservatives. The neo-conservatives entertained ambitions for America’s global role that went beyond retiring President Bill Clinton, beyond returning the Republicans to the white House, and beyond the conservative social agenda of Empower America. Their objective was to seize the political space crated by the strategic vacuum of the 1990s to advance a foreign policy agenda that seeks to remake substantial parts of the world in America’s image.
A Doctrine In Waiting
This is why, if one wishes to understand the direction of American foreign policy today, one must read what neo-conservatives were writing ten years or more ago. Americans and their overseas allies may believe that they are engaged in a war against terrorism. This is certainly part of the neo-conservative doctrine that was elaborated during the 1990s and that now so heavily influences Washington’s priorities had little to do with terror. Instead, the focus was the “emergence of China as a strong, determined, and potentially hostile power; the troubling direction of political developments in Russia; the continuing threat posed by aggressive dictatorships in Iraq, Serbia and North Korea”; and “the increasingly alarming decline in American military capabilities”. The mention of Iraq constitutes the only link to today’s war on terrorism, [a the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Africa].
This underscores our contention that the neo-conservative doctrine, conceived during the [Irving Kristol] Alcove I days of opposition to the Soviet Union and updated as part of a classic struggle for preeminence among sovereign states, is a questionable model for the threat of terrorism.
President Bush at one point described terrorist and the struggle against them as wholly different from the interaction of sovereign states. This is the point we look at in detail below: whether the doctrine, with which the neo-conservatives have landed us, distracts the United States from the pursuit of terrorism and whether it may indeed aggravate the threat, [and it has].