First, a confession: I have not read the book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Nor do I plan to read it — ever.
Frankly, most memoirs of bureaucrats and politicians are boring, as they usually are hastily put-together accounts, with two or three titillating revelations, meant to make a buck and provide a few more minutes in the public spotlight for the author. Not that I’m accusing Gates of that.
He is a man who has had a long and distinguished career in public service under several administrations, one worthy of commendation like that bestowed upon him by President Barack Obama in 2011, when he was awarded the Medal of Freedom.
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That being said, I’m not sure there’s much more I want to know about him that I don’t already know and, now that he’s in private life, I’m not eager to hear about his assessment of the military, the wars or the sitting president.
While I really don’t care about what he thinks of the president and vice president, I did find some of the statements attributed to his new book rather curious, and I found the reaction to them even more interesting.
Based on the brief excerpts published before the book’s release, and subsequent interviews Gates has given to the media, I don’t know what all the hoopla is about.
It seems the former defense secretary didn’t think President Obama was passionate enough about the strategy in Afghanistan and cared more for the troops than he did the mission.
He also faults the president for privately expressing “reservations” about whether the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan was working.
I saw the screaming newspaper and television news headlines such as “Bombshell,” “Shocking” and “Scathing” in reference to Gates’ criticism of the Obama administration, yet I still couldn’t comprehend all the fuss over the few passages I had seen.
In his first live television interview, even Gates questioned the news coverage/analysis of the book, saying passages had been taken out of context and that it “has sort of been hijacked by people along the political spectrum to serve their own purposes.”
Gates, who was first picked to be defense secretary under George W. Bush, accepted Obama’s offer to stay in the job out of “duty to those troops,” the same troops he accused the president of caring a little too much about.
In the book, according to press reports, Gates reacted to the president’s criticism of Army Gen. David Petraeus by saying:
“As I sat there, I thought, the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him it’s all about getting out.”
Although I find it a bit unsettling that a former cabinet member, particularly the one in charge of our troops, would be even remotely critical of the commander in chief while the country is still at war, I’m not shocked by it.
After all, what’s new here?
Obama campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and wanting to bring the troops home.
It was no secret that he was questioning the generals — something I expect the president to do — or engaging in debate about strategy, mission and expected outcome.
More than once, the president made it quite obvious that he had issues with Karzai, but I’m sure he didn’t appreciate the former defense secretary announcing to the world that he could not stand the man.
The fact that Gates, an old warrior, did not hit it off with the much younger members of the White House (and particularly National Security) staff who were willing to engage and challenge him doesn’t surprise me. It’s a generational thing.
All of this is to say, there’s nothing I’ve seen so far that would make me want to read this book.