When Robert Gates, the only Secretary of Defense to have served in two successive administrations—one Republican, one Democratic—published a memoir of his experiences in January, the Washington spin machine jumped into action. Hyper-partisans were quick to find passages that painted their most hated rivals in the least flattering light, then claimed that Gates’s tome confirmed what they had been saying all along. If Gates was annoyed by the cherry-picking, he should have anticipated it. The “Washington read”—which starts with the index and ends with someone finding his or her name—is a time-honored tradition.
But a selective read paints an inaccurate picture of Gates’s book, and Gates the man. The full story that emerges from this detailed and often deeply personal account of his four-and-a-half years in office is of a man fed up with the dysfunction of the nation’s Capitol, not one filled with disdain for a particular party.
Gates has nice things to say about both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He allows that domestic politics figured more prominently in national-security debate under Obama but were never the conclusive factor in his decisions. Both presidents made “decisions they believed to be in the best interest of the country regardless of the domestic political consequences … thereby earning my highest possible respect and praise … . I liked and respected both men.”
He does not say the same about members of Congress. But the problem is with the institution itself, not the partisan identities of the persons in it.
Someone inclined to attribute the worst motives to most people, but especially to public officials, would note the bitter irony of Robert Gates, the ultimate establishment insider, railing against the failings of the establishment. Then again, anyone who spends his days railing against the establishment is unlikely ever to become a part of it or to have any influence with it. The self-assured outsider can exult in being vindicated when the foreign-policy elite’s cherished beliefs come crashing into reality, but he is in no position to stop the disasters from happening in the first place.
Gates, who served eight different presidents and was a senior national security official to four of them, was in such a position in 2007 and again in 2009, when Israeli officials and a few Americans were angling for a military strike on Iran. Gates was there again in 2009 and 2010, when he managed to kill nearly three dozen wasteful and unnecessary weapons programs within the Department of Defense. And he was there in the spring of 2011, when liberal hawks inside the Obama administration and neoconservatives without were angling for U.S. military strikes against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. And though he lost that fight, he set down principles that his successors would be wise to follow.
Throughout the book, Gates brings the story back to the troops. “The troops were the reason I took the job, and they became the reason I stayed,” he writes. “Being called ‘the soldiers’ secretary’ because I cared so much about them was the highest compliment imaginable.”
George W. Bush brought Robert Gates into his administration in November 2006 to rescue a failing war effort in Iraq. Gates stayed under Obama to rescue the failing war in Afghanistan. In the service of what he saw as two noble and necessary missions, Gates frequently engaged in subterfuge, misdirection, and the occasional bald-faced lie.
The subterfuge was evident in his repeated hints of impending troop withdrawals from Iraq and later Afghanistan—needed, he believed, to sustain what meager public support there was. The American public wouldn’t support open-ended wars, so he kept telling them that the wars would end. But he was careful not to say when.
Yet if deadlines, or the mere suggestion of deadlines, are needed to sustain public support at home, then the broader mission is doomed. Time and again, Iraqis or Afghans who might have been willing to cooperate with U.S. troops held back, knowing that the troops would eventually leave. This also explains the double games played by Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani officials. Never confident in the United States’ staying power, they hedged their bets, sought other allies, and cut deals when they could. No amount of cajoling by U.S. officials could change this.
Gates “would defend [the Pakistanis] in front of Congress and to the press to keep the relationship from getting worse,” he explains, but “I knew they were really no ally at all.” In other words, he lied. Later he confides:
I did not believe that [Afghan president] Karzai would change his stripes, Pakistan would stop hedging, corruption would appreciably diminish, or the civilian surge would actually materialize. Just the same, if I had ever come to believe the military part of the strategy would not lead to success as I defined it, I could not have continued signing the deployment orders.
This statement, and others like it, is striking not merely because of the admission that he was deceiving the American people—it is obvious that Gates had also deceived himself.
The military part of the strategy was only a part, and the strategy as a whole could not work without the rest of the pieces falling into place. In the end, Gates couldn’t bring himself to embrace a different strategy if it would look like a retreat. So the nation, following Gates’s advice, persisted in a costly strategy without any of the essential elements in place and without any reasonable expectation that they would ever get there. It was the ultimate triumph of hope over experience.
And it was not for a lack of study. The Obama administration conducted two lengthy reviews of the war in Afghanistan in 2009, in February and March and then again from September into November. In each case, there ensued long discussions of what needed to be done but far less about how to do it. The simplest explanation for this is that no one had any answers, but everyone had already made up their minds, as Gates had, that we couldn’t walk away. So policymakers engaged in protracted discussions over what to do and never really grappled with whether to do it in the first place.
During the course of these reviews, Gates tangled often with Vice President Biden over the politics of the war at home. Whereas Biden doubted that the administration could sustain public support, Gates argued that it could, if the “president remained steadfast and played his cards carefully.” Gates explained, “Bush had done that with a far more unpopular war in Iraq, and with both houses of Congress in the hands of the Democrats.”
“The key,” Gates continued, “was showing that we were being successful militarily, at some point announcing a drawdown of forces, and being able to show that an end was in sight.”
But Biden had a point. First of all, Bush sustained an unpopular war and was spared the humiliation of electoral defeat, but his fellow Republicans weren’t so lucky. Dissatisfaction with the Iraq War helped fuel a Democratic landslide in the 2006 midterm elections. The result was a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress and Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. War supporters will argue that there are many reasons for the GOP’s decline, but they certainly must share some of the blame.
We also now know that the Iraq and Afghan troop surges did not generate the groundswell of public support that Gates claimed they would. When Bush announced the Iraq surge in January 2007, 58 percent of Americans thought that the war was a mistake. By the end of 2007, violence in Iraq had declined, but opposition to the war in the United States had not. The Afghan War has fared no better: two out of every three Americans today believe that the war was not worth fighting. In short, although Gates might not have liked to admit it, public opinion was a crucial constraint on the conduct of both wars, and politicians aren’t very good at manipulating it.
Gates and the military did not take seriously the other constraints on his Afghan strategy. Consider, for example, the limited number of civilians available to help with reconstruction after the military drove off the bad guys. When the State Department and USAID came up short, Gates urged them to look for contractors outside of government. But there is no cadre of lawyers, agronomists, engineers, policemen, teachers, and countless other professionals standing by to leave their jobs, homes, and families to travel to a distant land for months or longer. We should be realistic about our ability to build nations, especially when the nation isn’t ours to build.
In sum, if the strategy that Gates proposed relied on resources that were not available and could not be made available, then the strategy would fail. The men and women running America’s wars needed time, which they did not have. They needed civilian advisers, which they did not have. They needed host-nation capacity, and U.S. troops couldn’t fill that gap—no amount of hard fighting by U.S. troops makes a bit of difference in the long run if the host government lacks legitimacy with its people.
The logical conclusion was simple: Cut our losses. Contain the contagion. Fight al-Qaeda on our terms, in times and places of our choosing.
The Bush administration correctly chose to fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. But the United States was waging a very different sort of war, against a different enemy, eight years later. During one of his many visits to Afghanistan, Gates asked himself, “Why are people fighting over this godforsaken place?” The Afghans had their reasons; by 2009, most Americans did not.
Gates’s greatest frustrations as secretary occurred whenever people resisted doing whatever was needed to protect the troops from harm. It never seems to have occurred to him that he could best protect the troops by removing them from situations in which they could not possibly succeed. The reason he never seriously considered that option is both telling and disturbing:
For the United States to be perceived as defeated in Afghanistan … would have grave implications for our standing in the world. Nixon and Kissinger had been able to offset the consequences of U.S. defeat in Vietnam with the dramatic openings to Russia and China, demonstrating that we were still the colossus on the global stage. The United States had no such opportunities in 2010.
It was not victory per se that he was seeking, but rather avoiding the appearance of defeat—not exactly the sort of epitaph likely to adorn any war memorials 50 or 100 years hence.
To be sure, the end of the Iraq War did not look like Vietnam, and Afghanistan probably won’t either. Americans were spared the images of desperate Iraqis clinging to helicopter skids as the last Americans evacuated the country under fire. But the United States paid a price in additional lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, to secure that meager reward.
Gates wasn’t willing to seriously revisit the wisdom of fighting grueling conflicts in two Muslim countries, but he was quite adamant about not starting any new ones.
He successfully fended off possible war with Iran on at least two occasions, in the spring and summer of 2007 and again in 2009. He tried, but ultimately failed, to stop a far smaller operation in Libya in the spring of 2011. “I believed that what was happening in Libya was not a vital national interest of the United States,” he writes. “I opposed the United States attacking a third Muslim country within a decade to bring about regime change, no matter how odious the regime.”
“I had four months left to serve,” he continues, “and I was running out of patience on multiple fronts, but most of all with people blithely talking about the use of military force as though it were some kind of video game.” Gates laments that American presidents, egged on by ideologues on the left and the right, are too quick to resort to the use of force. They “need to be more willing and skillful in using tools in the national security toolkit other than hammers.”
But that doesn’t mean that Americans should spend less on defense. If Bob Gates had his way, we would be spending more. After he drove a stake through the hearts of a few dozen Pentagon projects, he acquired a reputation as a budget cutter. Some of the cuts were real, but Gates always intended to spend the money elsewhere within the Pentagon. And he was largely successful. By his own admission, “Defense’s base budget—not counting funding for the wars—had nearly doubled” since 9/11. During that time, “the Pentagon had forgotten how to make tough decisions and to prioritize.” His efficiency initiative helped reintroduce the concept, but that didn’t translate into savings for taxpayers. DoD outlays were $612 billion in 2007, Gates’s first year in office. They were $716 billion in 2011, the year that he left.
Still, Gates had reason to worry that his successors wouldn’t have it so good. The military’s budget is no longer rising and is likely to decline modestly when adjusted for inflation—probably for the balance of the decade, perhaps longer. And some costs within that budget are rising faster than others, cutting into procurement for future programs.
If the troops are going to have less money for equipment and operations, they should have fewer missions. We should avoid the temptation to engage in protracted wars, and we should be especially reluctant to send U.S. troops into conflicts that do not serve our vital interests. Gates stopped a big war in Iran, and tried (but ultimately failed) to stop a small war in Libya because he was mindful of the limits of U.S. military power: “not every outrage, every act of aggression, every oppression, or every crisis,” he writes, “can or should elicit an American military response.” But reining in our military budget will require more thoroughgoing changes to U.S. foreign policy, changes that Gates never seems to have seriously considered. 
That’s a shame. Gates’s genuine affection for the troops and love of country is revealed vividly in this book. He challenged those who failed to look out for our men and women in uniform and who put party or self above the nation. He took great pride in being known as the soldiers’ secretary. But he didn’t stop the two wars that he inherited, and he must ultimately bear some responsibility for the additional lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, on those two dubious enterprises.
Gates also failed to reexamine his views about the U.S. role in the world. In the interest of global security and our own, we must shed the mantle of world policeman and call on others to do more to defend themselves. The fact that Robert Gates asked many of the right questions but was not able to follow the answers to their logical conclusion is not a happy portent for the nation. If he couldn’t figure it out, perhaps no one entrusted with the responsibilities of office ever can.
Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.