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Duty

Robert Gates

WH Allen, published 16 January 2014, 9780753555538

Robert Gates retired from his role as US Secretary of State for Defense on July 1 2001, yet the countries, events and personalities of whom he writes remain on the world’s centre stage.  Hence this memoir will inform those who seek to understand the pickle of the Western world’s international relations.

 

The title underlines one of the book’s key themes – Gates is a man for whom the wellbeing of his homeland is his main focus. Subservient perhaps to the wellbeing of the troops of the US armed forces, for whom he feels (as he tells us on many occasions) an almost paternal responsibility. As a  British reader one cannot help but draw contrasts and comparisons with the management of Britain’s armed forces, and I doubt if any recent Minster of Defence has wept (usually internally) so often for those under his care. It is moving the degree to which Gates as a civilian (albeit with some slight and undiscussed USAF experience) can empathise so strongly with the military. (He was actually an intelligence specialist in the SAC).

 

The bulk of his career was spent in rising through the echelons of the CIA. As Director, his career reached a muddy end after indirect exposure to the Iran/Contra scandal. He retired to another career in academia, and was Dean of Texas A&M University when President Bush (jnr) plucked him to be new SoSDef at the end of 2006. This marks the start of this book’s narrative.

 

One of the chief merits of Duty is that Gates was in post for quite a while, and therefore worked for two Presidents – Bush & Obama. It is increasingly clear that Gates enjoyed a more fruitful relationship with the former. The book’s currency jabs the British reader – why have we too not benefited from a native sage commenting on how we slipped into Iraq and Afghanistan and how (from the highest level) those wars were conducted? It makes me even more livid that the fruits of Sir John Chilcot’s extensive and expensive inquiry are still hidden under a bushel (or two).

 

It is telling that, even a man as well informed as the author, was astonished at the poor state of the Iraq campaign when he arrived at his Pentagon desk “What the hell am I doing here? I have walked right into the middle of a category-five shitstorm”. It takes the US a very long time to get to grips with what Frank Ledwidge calls the “small war” scenario. Even Gates himself has moments of ‘normal’ bemusement – “Why are we fighting over this godforsaken place?” (re Afghanistan).

 

He makes great and continual play of being on the side of the ordinary soldier, whose needs seem to have escaped the early Bush and entourage – by the book’s end, no reader can be in any doubt that there can be no SoSDef who had the needs of the humblest trooper closer to his heart. He enjoys (or perhaps more accurately finds very rewarding) his meeting them at every opportunity, especially in theatre. Gates is much less enthralled with his enforced engagement with Congress committees and Congressmen. He frequently draws the parallel between dealing with acerbic factionalism in Iraq (and later Afghanistan) and the tribalism of Capitol Hill. It is illuminating to see how much of his time is spent on ‘spinning’ the war to them and the media. Equally it is disturbing to see how much time the President spends on considering the political fallout of his decisions re the military (particularly Obama, less so Bush, who, especially  in his second term, was more his own man). Much of Gates’ value was in bringing his experience to bear and making his presidential bosses aspire to realistic objectives in Iraq and Afghan.

 

I do not think Gates was laying on the irony, but I certainly saw it, when he describes Bush agonising over a decision in a meeting with the Joint Chiefs: Bush says “Why do people join the military if they don’t want to fight and defend their country?” (I was minded of Bush’s own service being confined to the National Guard, and only in Texas!

 

If Gates has a scratchy relationship with Congress, he gives the impression of making a huge effort with the Press. Despite some very stormy episodes (such as the debagging of Stan McChrystal by Rolling Stone, which is fascinating to read ), he rarely questions their motives. He is however constantly displeased by the level of leaks – including some that must emanate from senior military figures. That problem seems not to be so rampant in the UK.

 

Although essentially a civil servant, Gates clearly has well-developed political antennae. He steps on eggshells in reviewing Israeli influence over US foreign policy; but he is understandably upset by those in the White House who leaked to the Israelis.

 

Gates does not say it in so many words, but it is clear he views Obama’s aspirations on entering office as being somewhat naïve. In his position paper, Obama states: “From the beginning of the new administration, the president and his top advisers will need to signal firmly that the United States is in this war to win, and that we have the patience and determination to do so.” It took only a matter of months before Obama was seeking to announce the repatriation of troops from his ‘surge’.

 

There is very little mention of senior British commanders in Afghan, but much of this section of the book covers activity in Helmand. So the re-introduction of US forces to that province is a passing slight on British capability, over which Gates glosses. In Helmand he describes an interesting turf war between the US Marine Corps and the US Army, with the former keen for maximum autonomy.