Robert Gates puts his finger on the dangers of ambivalence

01/18/2014 6:10 PM

01/18/2014 6:10 PM

Some autobiographies emerge from careful reflection, others from career calculation. Robert Gates’ “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” seems the result of a good, long seethe.

This is not to discount Gates’ compelling, sometimes self-critical, recounting of recent history — ample reason to read the book. But consider this: “I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.”

So much for the legislative branch.

Gates is an exceptionally competent, sober-minded public servant who has finally lost all patience with politics. Either he is in need of Xanax and a nap or something is very wrong with Washington.

It is Gates’ critique of the executive branch under President Barack Obama that has naturally attracted the most attention. The national security staff, in Gates’ telling, is highly centralized and politicized. Vice President Joe Biden matches bureaucratic tenacity with uniformly poor judgment. Obama is ambivalent about his own Afghan strategy, and his choices came across as “politically calculated.”

Some critics of Gates’ book have found this critique self-contradictory. Doesn’t Gates stipulate, on Afghanistan, that “Obama was right in each of these decisions”? Doesn’t he admit “a similar approach to dealing with national security issues”?

Actually, Gates’ portrait is particularly convincing and damaging, precisely because he is neither a disappointed realist nor a disillusioned idealist. Instead, he is raising questions about the quality of Obama’s leadership.

Gates was fated by history to be the implementer of military surges, first in Iraq under George W. Bush and then in Afghanistan. Obama ordered the Afghan surge — but if he ever had confidence in this strategy, he quickly lost it. This leads Gates to a conclusion that should forever be honored in the history of passive-aggression: “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.” What comfort does this offer to troops?

The implication is clear. Gates supported the Afghan surge because he wanted success. Obama agreed to the surge, but his ultimate goal was to get out. This is how two men can agree on a policy while holding profoundly different views of military leadership.

Precisely because Gates shares “a similar approach to dealing with national security issues,” he does not make a broader critique of the real-world consequences of presidential ambivalence, particularly in the large zone of conflict running from North Africa to South Asia.

Whether attempting a pivot to Asia, or focusing on nation-building at home, the administration adopted a policy of all-purpose restraint in the Middle East. After Obama pledged to “maintain sufficient forces in the region to target all al-Qaida within Iraq,” American troops departed without a status-of-forces agreement or an adequate plan to oppose resurgent radicalism. In Syria, Obama called for Bashar Assad to go without seriously aiding U.S.-affiliated rebels. In Afghanistan, America appears to be elbowing for the exits. The New York Times recently referred to “a post-American Middle East.”

And what does a post-American Middle East look like? Iraq in crisis. Syria in ruins. Al-Qaida establishing safe havens across 400 miles of both countries — havens that could become launching pads. Our proxies in Syria crushed. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah ascendant. Disillusioned allies freelancing their own approaches. America is left with a strategy of devils’ deals.

This is not to argue that any solutions are easy or obvious, or that new military interventions are good options; it is only to note that “restraint” in helping proxies and allies can actually be indecision and paralysis, creating vacuums that Russia, Iran or al-Qaida are pleased to fill. And this is a larger problem for the Obama administration than a rogue memoir.

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