Duty, by Robert M. Gates
Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War
By Robert M. Gates
Knopf, 640 pages
Robert Gates has the unusual perspective of having served in the same Cabinet position (secretary of defense) under two presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) from two different parties. That perspective alone would make any personal account of his years at the center of American defense and foreign policy from 2006 to 2011 necessary reading. But the real story that Duty tells isn’t about Robert Gates. It’s about how one man, George W. Bush, decided to defy every adviser and expert in order to push a change of strategy in Iraq he believed would win a war everyone else thought was lost, while another, Barack Obama, tried to avoid making a similar decision in 2009 that would win the war in Afghanistan.
When Gates came on board in late 2006, Bush had already decided earlier that spring that a radical shift of strategy was necessary in Iraq after three years of frustration, more and more American casualties, and gathering chaos. At his first meeting as secretary of defense with the president and his military advisers on December 13, Gates heard the joint chiefs reject the idea of sending in additional forces, out of worry that it would “break the force” by overstretching our military. Bush listened, but then said, “The surest way to break the force is to lose in Iraq.”
On January 2, 2007, Gates called General David Petraeus to ask if he would take over as commander in Iraq to implement the new strategy. Petraeus agreed, but both he and his deputy, Ray Odierno, insisted on a commitment of five additional brigades, or 21,500 troops, to make the surge work. That is when “all hell broke loose,” as Gates describes it, both at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, with Bush holding steady and firm in the midst of the firestorm. “I can recall only three instances,” Gates writes, “ in which, in my opinion, a president risked reputation, public esteem, credibility, political ruin, and the judgment of history on a single decision he believed was the right thing for our country.” The other two were Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush’s assent to the 1990 budget deal. But Bush’s decision on the surge, even overruling his own military high command, was far more consequential than either—and one would argue, more correct.
Those who tried to halt the surge strategy, both at the start and later in mid-stride, included then-Senators Joe Biden, who dismissed it as “a tragic mistake”; Hillary Clinton, who implied Petraeus might be lying about the surge’s growing success; Barack Obama, who asked, “At what point do we say, enough?”; and Chuck Hagel, who said it was “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” All would wind up manning the foreign-policy tiller after Bush. They would also take credit for a successful withdrawal from Iraq—a withdrawal made possible by the surge they trashed.
The most devious opponent Gates and Bush faced was the late Congressman John Murtha, a longtime Democratic hawk, who wanted the brigades being sent to be certified as fully combat-ready—until Gates explained to the rest of Congress that this gimmick would cut the possible surge forces by a third. But the most potentially destructive in Gates’s mind was Senate majority leader Harry Reid, whose declarations that “this war is lost” and “the surge has accomplished nothing” constantly sent the message to the troops and their families that they were risking their lives uselessly. Gates notes that he found a quotation by Abraham Lincoln and sent it to his staff for their eyes only: “Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, and hanged.” Amazingly, it didn’t leak.
As for Hillary Clinton, the press has made much—actually too much—of the passage in Duty where Barack Obama and Secretary of State Clinton admit in Gates’s hearing that their opposition to the 2007 surge was largely political and how dismayed he was. In fact, throughout the rest of the book, Gates praises her as a strong ally in the effort to get President Obama to commit himself on key foreign-policy matters including the surge in Afghanistan, and with whom he “agreed on almost every important issue.” Gates also has words of praise for Obama. He commends the president’s “courage” in launching the Bin Laden raid; he speaks of his visits to wounded soldiers.
But otherwise the portrait he paints of Obama is deeply damning without actually saying so, and it revolves around the same question Bush faced in 2007: How does one win a war, in this case Afghanistan, that one’s own advisers believed was at a stalemate or even lost? Here the contrast with Bush could not be more stark. Unlike his predecessor, possessed of an iron will and determination to do the right thing, we see a president who has to be dragged into making a decision. For four long months, from August until mid-November 2009, Gates fought to make Obama take ownership of the conflict Obama himself had declared was “a war we must win,” and to accept the notion that a temporary surge in troops would have enormous, even decisive, benefits.
Obama’s resistance sprang not only from the constant chorus of his political advisers, who said that a surge would damage his relationship with Democrats. Vice President Biden also warned that Republicans on the Hill would exploit “Obama’s war” in the same ruthless way he and Biden had exploited Bush’s surge in Iraq. (In truth, Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsay Graham stood firm with the president.) Obama also came to believe the military was trying to back him into a corner on Afghanistan, in order to wreck his presidency.
As Gates relates, Bush respected and felt at ease with his uniformed commanders, even when he was questioning their views or overruling them. Obama, by contrast, never trusted or respected Petraeus, or Navy chief Mike Mullen, or General Stanley McChrystal, the universally respected expert on counterterrorist operations who said an extended CT strategy would never work in Afghanistan, and that the surge was the way to go. At times Obama’s fear of his top commanders seems to have bordered on paranoia. Even when he did finally agree to the surge strategy and appointed McChrystal to lead it, he insisted on trimming the number of troops to be sent—and kept looking for any excuse to back out.
So, when Rolling Stone ran its dismaying article on McChrystal, quoting his staff as saying Obama was a disappointment and mocking Biden, Obama was inclined to use it as an excuse to scrap the surge itself, which had been approved only six months earlier. “[McChrystal] doesn’t seem to be making progress,” Gates quotes Obama as grumbling. “Maybe his strategy is not really working.”
Gates urged the president not to fire the man he had so recently given the job of turning the tide in Afghanistan. “I believe if we lose McChrystal, we lose the war,” he said, and the damage to relations with Afghan president Karzai, with whom McChrystal had developed a relationship of trust, would be “irrevocable.”
But in Obama’s mind, he and his administration had been dissed, and whoever did it had to go, regardless of the effect on the war. And although the surge did work under McChrystal’s successor, David Petraeus, we still await an answer to the question of whether the delay in first approving it and then changing commanders, and the loss of the one person who could deal with Karzai, damaged the American cause “irrevocably.”
Still, the sharpest contrast between Bush and Obama for Gates was the latter’s lack of engagement in a conflict that was both vital to American interests and had cost thousands of young Americans their lives or limbs. He writes that Bush “was passionate about the war in Iraq; I would see his eyes well up with tears” at Medal of Honor ceremonies. “When soldiers put their lives on the line,”
Gates writes, “they need to know that the commander in chief who sent them in harm’s way believes in their mission.”
Yet Obama never did, then or later. As his subsequent actions both in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, his chief interest was and is to put these conflicts behind him, regardless of future consequences—or even whether the thousands of families who lost loved ones on those battlefields will be left with the sense that those loved ones died for nothing.
Duty is a powerful account of how one president was willing to make hard decisions for the sake of the country, regardless of how it affected his political image, because he believed the cause was just; while another was determined to avoid those hard choices regardless of how it affected the country or rendered the sacrifice of young Americans useless, because in the end the only cause he believed in was himself.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Two Leaders, Judged
Must-Reads from Magazine
RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.