Robert Gates' Duty: Too Little, Too Late, and Way Too Long

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Robert Gates served as Secretary of Defense after the resignation of the total failure, Donald Rumsfeld. Bush kept Rumsfeld on until 2006. Bush got Robert Gates to sign on.

That was Gates’ mistake. He signed on for the two-war death watch.

Today, Al Qaeda occupies Fallujah. Yet one-third of America’s 4,500 troops who died in Iraq, died to capture Fallujah. But there is this difference: Al Qaeda had no presence in Iraq when Bush sent troops to invade in 2003. Saddam Hussein had the handful of Al Qaeda members under control.

That is the Rumsfeld-Gates legacy.

Now Gates has written a 600-page book, Duty. It is a self-serving attack on his former bosses. It is self-justifying in this sense: Gates presided over a two-war disaster, but he never quit in order to speak out in protest immediately after he quit.

They never do. Well, not quite never. William Jennings Bryan quit as Secretary of State in 1915, because he saw that Wilson, in the name of neutrality, was pushing the United States into the war in Europe. He refused to become responsible for pursuing such a policy, as his letter of resignation said.

Gates never spoke out when he was in power, either behind closed doors or publicly. He never said what he thought. So, he kept his job.

He recounts his thoughts during a tense 2011 meeting with Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in the White House Situation Room: “As I sat there I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

That’s what he thought, was it? But what did he do? He presided over the two wars, as he had done for four years.

In his book, we read this:

All too often during my 4½ years as secretary of defense, when I found myself sitting yet again at that witness table at yet another congressional hearing, I was tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot. The exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else. It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.

But what did he do? He sat there and took it. He did not quit. He zipped his lip.

Now he writes 600 pages of self-justification. Too late. The disasters happened on his watch. A book does not change this. Neither do extracts in the Wall Steet Journal.

I did not just have to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq and against al Qaeda; I also had to battle the bureaucratic inertia of the Pentagon, surmount internal conflicts within both administrations, avoid the partisan abyss in Congress, evade the single-minded parochial self-interest of so many members of Congress and resist the magnetic pull exercised by the White House, especially in the Obama administration, to bring everything under its control and micromanagement. Over time, the broad dysfunction of today’s Washington wore me down, especially as I tried to maintain a public posture of nonpartisan calm, reason and conciliation.I was brought in to help salvage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–both going badly when I replaced Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006. When I was sworn in, my goals for both wars were relatively modest, but they seemed nearly unattainable. In Iraq, I hoped we could stabilize the country so that when U.S. forces departed, the war wouldn’t be viewed as a strategic defeat for the U.S. or a failure with global consequences; in Afghanistan, I sought an Afghan government and army strong enough to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and al Qaeda from returning to use the country again as a launch pad for terror. Fortunately, I believe my minimalist goals were achieved in Iraq and remain within reach in Afghanistan.

Today, Al Qaeda occupies Fallujah.

It is not good enough to have minimalist goals while the invading troops are occupying the nation they invaded. The goals are supposed to be permanent.

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