Sarah Chayes: Gates should have raised concerns in person

01/16/2014 12:00 AM

01/15/2014 9:19 PM

In a dozen years of war, Americans have grown used to improvised explosive devices. The detonations have rocked the streets of Kabul and Baghdad – and also of Washington, D.C. Only, in Washington, the bombshells appear in print.

The latest domestic blast, a diatribe called “Duty” by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, seems to have startled even the dean of White House correspondents. “It is rare for a former Cabinet member,” wrote Bob Woodward in the Washington Post, “let alone a defense secretary … to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”

Yet, as can happen with IEDs, the shrapnel from this one may wound its originator more severely than its intended targets.

In his memoir, Gates emerges as a petulant, inhibited man who ill-served his president and the national interest by keeping his anger and concerns bottled up instead of raising them in person, at the time when it might have done his country some good.

Especially toward the end of his tenure, Gates would let fly with an occasional caustic remark. But he was known in the Pentagon, where I worked at the time, for his understatement. Often the last to comment in meetings of top officials where national security decisions were made, he saved his fire until he had heard where his colleagues came down.

But the Gates who emerges in this self-portrait is hopping mad, constantly struggling to contain the boiling inside. “My initial instinct was to storm out,” he said of a National Security Council meeting, one of many moments when he writes he almost quit. “It took every bit of my self-discipline to stay seated on the sofa.”

Hiding thoughts and feelings, presenting an impassive face to the outside world, is often seen as a rugged, manly virtue. In this case, it was a failing.

As defense secretary, Gates could meet the president whenever he needed to. And yet, by his own admission, he never mentioned his concerns. Those concerns, especially regarding what he calls White House micromanagement, are shared by other former officials who have spoken out. But it is just such issues that responsible top executives routinely raise and work through with their superiors.

Gates also decries the national security staff’s “aggressive, suspicious and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.” Yet he never rose to those leaders’ defense by having a forthright conversation with the president to call out this conduct. If it was as damaging to him and to the national interest as he writes, it was his duty to do so.

Gates blasts Obama’s growing ambivalence about the “troop increase (he) boldly approved in 2009.” The massive deployment was, in Gates’ view, a better approach than whac-a-mole counterterrorism. And yet without a policy to grapple with the abusive corruption of the Afghan government or with Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban, neither of those military options stood much chance of success. Without such a strategic framework, Obama was right to be dubious about the surge. Where he was wrong was in failing to task his civilian leadership to adequately develop that policy.

“Duty” will go down as one of the most ill-tempered memoirs ever written by a former Cabinet secretary. Gates may have tarnished his previously stellar name by retorting in this manner at this time.

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