Thursday, January 9, 2014

Robert Gates for President?

Gates' memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, is set to be released on January 14th. But advance copies are already out and reviews are pouring in, as the book is setting off a series of firestorms for the embattled White House which just can't seem to catch a break. One of most damning snippets from the book--so far--is the following:
"Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying."
No one enjoys hearing something like this, that a President or other national leader put politics ahead of national interests, even if it's something that most suspect happens all of the time. But couple the above with revelations about Obama's commitment to the war in Afghanistan--or lack thereof--and a deeply anti-military image is emerging, far beyond what was previously supposed by some, of the President and his Administration:
Mr. Gates writes that Mr. Obama had early doubts about his decision in late 2009 to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for the mission,” he writes. Mr. Gates says that Mr. Obama was taken aback by a 2009 request from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, for a major military surge. “I think Obama and his advisers were incensed that the Department of Defense – specifically uniformed military – had taken control of the policy process from them and threatened to run away with it.”
The above piece at the Wall Street Journal lists a number of other--nine more, to be precise--revelations from the book to round out the "top ten" in this regard. And by and large, most of them point to this adversarial relationship between the Administration and the military leadership. And again, while this is not at all surprising on the surface, the depth of the divide, the degree of antipathy between the two sides is very significant, if we accept Gates' characterizations.

The question thus becomes: should we? Is there any reason to doubt Gates, his observations, and his characterizations?

Consider George Tenet's "tell all" memoir, At the Center of the Storm: The CIA During America's Time of Crisis, published back in 2007. Initially, it was hailed as something of a bombshell, especially with regard to Tenet's story about how the Bush Administration had already fixated on an Iraqi invasion immediately after 9-11 and how his "slam dunk" comment was being misrepresented. Look at this review from the New York Times:
Mr. Tenet notes that his “slam dunk” remarks came “10 months after the president saw the first workable war plan for Iraq,” and “two weeks after the Pentagon had issued the first military deployment order sending U.S. troops to the region.” He points out that many senior Bush administration officials, including Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith, were focused on Iraq long before 9/11, and that Mr. Cheney asked Bill Clinton’s then-departing secretary of defense, William Cohen, before the 2001 inauguration to give the incoming president a comprehensive briefing on Iraq and detail possible future actions.

On the day after 9/11, he adds, he ran into Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative and the head of the Defense Policy Board, coming out of the White House. He says Mr. Perle turned to him and said: “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.” This, despite the fact, Mr. Tenet writes, that “the intelligence then and now” showed “no evidence of Iraqi complicity” in the 9/11 attacks.
The last bit here, the meeting between Perle and Tenet on the day after 9-11, was the big one. It was seized on by most every media outlet because it was just so damning for the Bush Administration, with regard to the lead-up to the Iraq War. But the problem here was that the meeting Tenet describes never happened. It couldn't have happened because Richard Perle was in France on the day after 9-11. He did not return to the United States until September 15th (and he denies having said what Tenet attributes to him, regardless).

This obvious fabrication on Tenet's part undermined the entirety of the book, every claim he made that was disputed, quickly turning the "bombshell" into a dud. The NYT review concluded--now humorously--with Tenet's own words at the end of the book:
Paraphrasing Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Tenet concludes: “Policymakers are entitled to their own opinions — but not to their own set of facts.”
I say "now humorously" because it appears it was Mr. Tenet who had his "own set of facts."

So what about Gates' book? Is he set to suffer the same sort of fate? Is there a whopper waiting to be found that will undo all of his claims and characterizations? Probably not. Because Gates is actually not trying to rebuild his image or defend his actions--as opposed to Tenet--and is mostly noting his own perceptions and opinions. For example, he slams Joe Biden's opinions pretty good, yet still describes the Vice President as a "man of integrity." Similarly, even though he questions the President's commitments, he allows that the President made the right decisions, more or less, and is effusive in his praise for Obama's decision to send Seal Team Six after Osama bin Laden.

From what I've read, it's an honest--at times, brutally so--attempt to fashion a complete narrative of Gates' time and experiences in the office of Secretary of Defense. The WSJ piece concludes with two critical takeaways, in my opinion:
Mr. Gates says that domestic politics factored into “virtually every major national security problem” the Obama White House faced. At one point, Mr. Gates writes, he witnessed a conversation between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton in which the president “conceded vaguely” that his opposition to the 2007 military surge in Iraq was a political calculation. Mr. Gates called the exchange “remarkable”...

Mr. Gates writes that his reputation for having an even temper often masked his outrage and contempt. “I did not enjoy being secretary of defense,” he writes.
The first I addressed above. The second is a consequence of both the first and other incidents Mr. Gates relates. But taken together, they suggest Gates is a member of that rare breed: honorable men (and women) who seek to do what is right, not based on political calculations but on the realities before them. His last comment, about not enjoying his time in the office, brings to mind the exchange between Marcus Aurelius and General Maximus from the 2000 film Gladiator:
Marcus Aurelius: There is one more duty that I ask of you before you go home.
Maximus: What would you have me do, Caesar?
Marcus Aurelius: I want you to become the protector of Rome after I die. I will empower you to one end alone: To give power back to the people of Rome, and end the corruption that has crippled it. Will you accept this great honor I have offered you?
Maximus: With all my heart, no.
Marcus Aurelius: Maximus, that is why it must be you.
It is of course highly unlikely that Gates will run for any office, let alone the Presidency. But I think I would prefer him over pretty much anyone else out there right now.

Cheers, all.

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