Gates offers portrait of nation at war

Posted February 18, 2014

“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War”
By Robert M. Gates


Why would Robert Gates, the former defense secretary under George W. Bush, remain in his post throughout the first years of Barak Obama’s presidency? After all, it was clear that Obama was firmly opposed to the former president’s foreign and military policy.

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not found in the 594 pages of Gates’ latest book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War”. However, this autobiography does confirm something that Americans everywhere were already aware of: Washington, D.C., is at war.

While Gates is normally seen as a politician able to rise above party lines, he was unable to keep his disdain towards the Obama administration from slipping into his writing.
The blunt of Gates’ criticism is mostly reserved for Obama’s senior advisers, in particular Vice-President Joe Biden.

“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” writes Gates.

In a way, it seems as if Gates is trying to wash his hands of the country’s troubles. The conflict in Afghanistan is presented as solely George Bush’s war and, because of this, Obama was never able to efficiently handle the situation. Gates writes, “The president doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Gates is not entirely critical of President Obama, saying, “For the first two years, on national security matters we largely saw eye to eye.” This support and reinforcement of the president is undermined by thinly veiled attacks such as, “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.”

Gates’ many different opinions and criticisms of the two administrations he served are conflicting and often contradictory. Ultimately, this book paints the portrait of a capital torn apart by party lines. As much as Gates tries to maintain a bipartisan outlook, at times he sounds bitter due to the lack of support he received as a republican in Obama’s administration.

It is important to remember that Bush did not call upon Gates until 2006, three years after the United States had decided to invade Iraq. “If the president thinks I can help, I had no choice but to say yes, it’s my duty,” writes Gates. He admits that his feelings towards Iraq and Afghanistan are ambiguous and he does not know how he would have counseled the president at the time.

“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” begins when Bush sought out Gates for the Secretary of Defense position. The first half of the memoir covers the Bush administration’s last two years and Gates reveals several disagreements that took place during that time.

The second half of “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” deals with the far more numerous, and personal disagreements Gates had with Obama and his administration.

Gates admits that many times he found himself close to resigning because of the treatment he received from various members of Congress. Gates writes, “When they went into an open hearing, and the little red light went on atop a television camera, it had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf.”

Despite the various attacks and criticisms presented in the book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” will leave readers with new insight and perspective on America’s troubled capital.

If anything, Gates’ accounts of his time spent serving under the Bush and Obama administrations are surprisingly candid and vivid. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have largely defined the last two presidencies, and by telling his own personal story Gates is able to shed new light on the subjects.

  • “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” by Robert M. Gates
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
  • Published Jan 14, 2014
  • Kindle $11.99, hardcover $21
  • 594 pages