There were times that Robert Gates wanted to come across the conference tables and scream at members of Congress.
They let down soldiers, including the thousands who died. He thought they sometimes put partisanship ahead of soldiers. They mocked Iraqi parliamentarians who resorted to violence after only a year of democracy, when more than 200 years of democracy hadn’t seemed to teach members of the U.S. Congress to pass an appropriations budget.
Gates was a leader so nonpartisan and effective that he was U.S. secretary of defense for both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. A Wichita native, Gates will return home Monday to speak at Wichita State University about his book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”
In it, he writes that the toughest challenge he had in four years as secretary of defense was the toll it took on his emotions. He talked often to wounded soldiers and families of the dead. Those four years were driven, he said, by the near-desperation he felt about helping them.
“I wouldn’t say I was suffering,” Gates said in a telephone interview. “There’s no doubt that the casualties, the visits to hospitals and the funerals I attended had a huge emotional impact on me. But I kept signing the orders that I thought were necessary for our nation’s security.”
One casualty: Alex Funcheon from Bel Aire, a 21-year-old Army sergeant killed in April 2007 by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
Six weeks after he died, his parents, Bob and Karen Funcheon, climbed the steps of Air Force One during a visit to Wichita by President George W. Bush. They asked Bush whether he was going to make the soldiers’ deaths mean something.
Over this past weekend, the Funcheons passed along a question they hoped Gates could answer this week – the same question they posed to Bush seven years ago: Given that the purpose of the wars “was to make the world a safer place,” Bob Funcheon wrote in an e-mail, and given that “terrorism is essentially the same ... can you tell us it was worth it?”
The short answer, Gates said, is yes. The Afghan army, created and armed by the U.S., is fighting hard, holding territory, holding the Taliban down. Iraq has the chance to become a stable democracy someday.
The longer answer is more complex.
Alex Funcheon and all those other soldiers kept us safe, Gates said.
“There has not been another big attack on us in 14 years,” he said.
He’s convinced the wars prevented attacks on the U.S. and damaged the capabilities of our enemies. But that’s only part of the story, he said.
“We stabilized Iraq, got rid of a dictator, presented the Iraqis with the opportunity for a rudimentary democracy with the observance of human and political rights. We handed all that to them on a silver platter. But now, through mistakes they have made, that achievement has been put at risk.”
In his book, Gates spares no one he encountered as defense secretary from 2006 to 2011. He praises both Bush and Obama for having the courage to change war strategy. He said Dick Cheney was far wiser and more thoughtful than his public image indicates. His warmest praise, though he says he’s much more Republican than anything else, was for Hillary Clinton: “I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.”
But she disappointed him one day in a Cabinet meeting when she admitted that as a U.S. senator, she had opposed the surge in troop strength in Iraq because she was running against Obama in the Democratic Party primary in Iowa.
Gates had a history of serving presidents going back to the Nixon administration; he’d served the first President Bush as director of the CIA.
Gates supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq but says in the book that Iraq turned into a “debacle” from “disastrous decisions.” When he took over as defense secretary, “we were losing that war.”
In response, he said, the Defense Department and Congress were often “dismaying” in their behavior. Pentagon leaders seemed to care “not about fighting the wars we had but in planning for the next war” in a relaxed, business-as-usual mind-set. And Congress was terrible – both parties.
“Uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micro-managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and re-election) before country – this was my view of the majority of the United States Congress.” He had little but scorn for the partisanship and behavior of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Vice President Joe Biden is a nice man, he wrote, but Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy issue over the past four decades.”
Obama, whom Gates wrote has a “first-rate intellect and temperament” and who cared deeply about the combat troops, never seemed to get emotionally engaged about the Iraq and Afghan wars. The only time Gates saw him get animated was over ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy that excluded gay people from serving in the military.
Partisanship has hurt us all, he said in the phone interview.
“Our politics in this country has always been ugly from the beginning,” he said. “The Founding Fathers didn’t particularly love each other. But our polarization has reached a point where we can’t get anything done.
“That paralysis is breeding a cynicism in our people that I have never seen before.
“You can still make the system work,” he said. “I did. You do it by treating each other civilly, by not demonizing, by actually listening to the other side.
“Compromise is not synonymous with selling out.”