Did Bob Gates’ New Book Just Trash His Golden Reputation?

The former Secdef was known for quiet loyalty –- until a tell-all unloaded on his old bosses.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Robert Gates had a nearly five-year run at the Pentagon in which he cultivated an image of himself as the consummate professional, the reluctant, bureaucratic hero with the steel trap for a brain, the discreet adviser who was as humbled by the office he held as he was by his meetings with the young troops fighting the wars he was brought in to fix.

It were those characteristics that helped define him, prompting the incoming Obama administration to make history by asking Gates, President Bush’s last secretary of defense, to remain in his job. It led White House officials and members to Congress to brand him as one of the best defense secretaries the Pentagon had ever seen. And that reputation helped lift his stature above that of so many of the other Washington officials who were so often seen as small-minded, ego-driven and politically petty. Gates seemed to stand out in Washington because he seemed so unlike the rest of the city’s politicians and administration officials.

Until now. Gates, 70, has unmasked himself as just another former Washington official writing just another kiss-and-tell in the soon-to-be-released Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, in which he takes shots at a sitting commander-in-chief, his top aides and Congress, an institution with which he often expressed frustration – but also respect. Gates was known for being discreet and sharp-minded, loyal to the office he occupied and careful about what he said in public. So deliberate were his public pronouncements about wars or national security policy or budgets that he became the E.F. Hutton of the Pentagon — everyone leaned in every time he had something to say.

But now his brand seems diminished by the scrappy, petty nature of many of his criticisms — even though some are substantive and legitimate — and a legacy he seemed quietly determined to protect may be permanently reduced to something less than what it once was.

Norm Ornstein, an expert on Congress and politics at the American Enterprise Institute, said he was struck by Gates’ ability to keep up a facade of calm despite his clearly strong, and often negative, feelings about his administration colleagues. Ornstein said Gates did the administration a significant favor by waiting until after the 2012 elections before releasing the book, but said the work would still "alter the perception of a man" who’d always been praised for his discretion and ability to work with politicians of both parties.

"It will tarnish, to a degree, his entire reputation," Ornstein said. "It takes someone who left with a sterling reputation across the board and it leaves a little bit of bad taste."

The harshness of the critique that took most people in official Washington by surprise, even if it didn’t surprise any of those close to him.

"I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micro managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country," Gates writes in the book. Gates writes that he fantasized about walking out of the middle of many of the congressional hearings he was forced to sit through. "There is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that," he wrote, referring to members of Congress with whom he exchanged sometimes testy exchanges that left him seething internally.

In public, however, Gates was deferential to a Congress in which he clearly enjoyed bipartisan fawning. "Secretaries come and go, but the Senate Armed Services Committee remains," he said during his confirmation hearing in 2006. "If confirmed, I will seek your counsel and take it seriously."

The book appears to contain a number of contradictions that in and of themselves seem un-Gates-like for a man who always seemed cocksure and so certain of his beliefs that he was sometimes willing to fire those that disagreed.

Although he writes toward the end of the book that he believed Obama was right in each of the decisions he made on Afghanistan, Gates also indicated Obama’s lack of confidence in his own decision to surge 30,000 American reinforcements into Afghanistan raised questions about his leadership. Elsewhere, he writes that Obama made some of his choices on Afghanistan because of perceived political necessity, only to later write that the president overruled his political advisors in doing so. The conflicting sentiments are out of character for a man who always prided himself on the clarity and consistency of his beliefs.

In November 2010, Gates writes that he had a tense meeting with Obama over the future size of the budget. Gates felt that the president had committed himself to an earlier agreement that would have largely spared the Defense Department from cuts and was surprised to learn that Obama, citing the budget crisis, now wanted the Pentagon to trim its costs. After the meeting, Obama gave him a gift-wrapped package of expensive vodka with a note attached that read: "Dear Bob, Sorry I drive you to drink. Barack Obama." Gates appreciated the gesture, but it did little to mollify his sense of frustration and betrayal.

"In truth, I was extremely angry with President Obama on the afternoon of the fourteenth. I felt he had breached faith with me both on the budget numbers for FY2012-16 … and on the promise that Defense could keep all the efficiencies savings for reinvestment in military capabilities," Gates writes. "I felt like all the work we had done in the efficiencies effort had been unrewarded and, further, that I had been forced to break my word to the military services. As in the spring with "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," I felt that agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient."

The biggest difference between Gates’ placid public demeanor and the fury that permeates the book comes through in his treatment of Vice President Joe Biden, who he describes as a political animal who distrusted the military and "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades," particularly Afghanistan.

The two men had clashed bitterly during the Obama administration’s tortured 2009 Afghan strategy review, with Gates, backed by the Pentagon’s top military leaders, calling a broad counterinsurgency strategy and Biden calling for a limited counterterrorism one. Gates’ views won out, but the passage of time has done little to diminish his belief that Biden’s views were outlandish and deeply flawed. The vice president’s approach, Gates writes, amounted to a game of "Whac-A-Mole" rather than a viable "long term strategy." The former defense chief writes that the administration’s adoption of own strategy, by contract, means that his "minimalist goals…remain within reach in Afghanistan."

Three years later, though, it’s far from clear that Gates will prove to be so right about Afghanistan and Biden so wrong. Take the most recent National Intelligence Estimate about Afghanistan, which represents the collective judgment of the American intelligence community. According to a report in the Washington Post late last year, the classified document concluded that the U.S.-led coalition’s battlefield wins are likely to largely disappear within three years regardless of whether the Obama administration maintains a small American troop presence there or continues to fund the Afghan security forces. The report, according to the Post, said that the Taliban was likely to become more powerful in the years ahead, not weaker, which would mean that a central goal of the surge had failed.

Or take the Pentagon’s own assessment of the current state of the war. The Defense Department said the Afghan security forces had rapidly grown in both size and skill, giving them the ability to conduct the vast bulk of military operations across the country, clear broad swaths of terrain, and largely prevent insurgents from returning. Still, the report said the insurgency had been far from defeated.

"Insurgents maintained influence in many rural areas that serve as platforms to attack urban areas, and were able to carry out attacks with roughly the same frequency as in 2012," the Pentagon report said. "The insurgency maintained an operational tempo this year similar to the previous three years, and the geographic distribution of attacks also remained roughly consistent."

Biden, according to accounts of the 2009 surge debate, had also been deeply skeptical of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai has validated many of Biden’s doubts by harshly condemning the U.S. troop presence in his country — even though the survival of his regime depends on American support — and has refused to sign a pact that would clear the way for a long-term U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Karzai’s intransigence has infuriated the administration and led some senior officials to argue that the U.S. should simply withdraw all combat troops from the country and leave Karzai to his own devices.

With U.S. combat troops slated to withdraw later this year, Afghanistan could quickly descend into the chaos and instability that the surge Gates favored — and Biden opposed — was designed to prevent.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security fellow at AEI who followed Gates’ tenure at the Pentagon closely, said she was struck by the former defense chief’s broad-based criticism of the administration. Eaglen, who said she had not yet read the book,wondered if the harshness of Gates critique reflected actual policy differences — or personal vendettas.

"Is he really mad about defense cuts from a Puritan angle, or is he angry that he wasn’t consulted by the President first?" she said. "Or, was he angry because Obama used him as cover [for cuts]?"

Eaglen, who said she has never been a big Gates supporter, agreed that Gates was probably one of the most consequential secretaries of the last several decades, but said she and other conservatives believed he used his clout and power for the wrong things.  And she said in the end, the book helps reinforce the idea that he could be a bit of a chameleon.

"He’s like a prism," she said. "Whichever way you turn him, he’s going to reflect something different."

None of this is to say that what Gates said about the White House or Congress is untruthful — at least in his view or that of many others who served with and for him. At least one senior officer who was present during much of the Gates era corroborated Gates’ views. "I found nothing inaccurate in the book reviews that I’ve seen to date," the senior officer said.

Still, Gates’ criticisms of the commander-in-chief, who still presides over a war in which more than 38,000 American troops are currently fighting, struck one former administration official as odd. Gates, who took the time to write more than 3,700 personal condolence letters to the families of the fallen — often at home at night alone, over a TV dinner and a drink. He often spoke to troops and said he loved them. The official said the book could inadvertently make those troops question the judgment of the man who had sent them into harm’s way.

"Gates speaks movingly about his concern for the lives and morale of our troops. Why then publish his opinion that Obama doesn’t believe in the strategy while they are still fighting?" asked the former official.

"I think people are universally stunned by the book — the White House, former colleagues, even reporters," said the official. "It goes against Gates’ entire persona while in government of being a discreet, behind the scenes player. It comes off as petty score settling."

Staff writers John Hudson and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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