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Nonfiction Robert Gates’ memoirs reflect a secretary’s state of conflict

  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • Published Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” by Robert M. Gates (Knopf, 618 pages, $35)

The greatest challenge faced by a secretary of defense, according to Robert Gates, is the crushing impact “of dealing daily with multiple problems, pivoting on a dime every few minutes from one issue to another … and then making decisions, always with too little time and too much ambiguous information.” As he deals with “difficult allies and difficult foes” around the world, moreover, the secretary also has his “hands full with both in Washington, D.C.,” as he copes with bureaucratic infighting and inertia, conflicts within the executive branch, and the partisan abyss in Congress. In the early 21st century, Gates points out, “crises don’t come and go – they all seem to come and stay.”

Gates, a Wichita native, knows what he is talking about. A former officer in the United States Air Force, Gates has a Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet history, served as a member of the National Security Council staff in four administrations, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President George H.W. Bush, and as president of Texas A&M University. His tenure as secretary of defense, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, from 2006 to 2011, was longer than that of all but four of his predecessors.

In “Duty,” Gates takes readers inside “the situation rooms” where, as secretary of defense, he planned the troop surges for Iraq and Afghanistan, responded to new realities in Russia and China, debated the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and prepared the Pentagon’s budget. Informative, reflective, provocative and at times emotional, his book is essential reading for anyone interested in United States foreign policy.

Although his candor is mostly welcome, Gates’ decision to publish “Duty” before the end of Obama’s term as president and his acidic assessments of members of his administration cast doubt on his claims that he is a team player. All the more so because Gates is a Republican. To be sure, Gates indicates that he had very few disagreements with George W. Bush because he entered the Cabinet when the key national security decisions had already been made and Vice President Cheney was “an outlier on the team.”

That said, Gates’ tone changes when he turns to his Obama years. He blasts Vice President Biden as driven by political considerations and “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

“Duty,” of course, does not offer the last word on national security issues. Gates may be overly sanguine, for example, about the impact of the surges in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. He may be wrong about the size of the Pentagon budget. And, now and again, pride, prickliness and petulance may cloud his judgment.

It is clear, however, that Robert Gates, who may well know more about military affairs than any other American, has done his duty to his country. That comes through in both his government service and a book that provides a framework to help us make informed choices about war and peace.

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