To be honest, apart from scanning for tidbits on a particular topic, I haven’t read a “big” Washington insider memoir at the time it came out since Henry Kissinger’s. I was glad then to see that veteran journalist Tom Ricks describe Robert Gates’s Duty as “probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever” because my reading in it made me wonder whether I’d been missing something important all these years. Gates’s book is extremely good, full of detail, knowledge, and apparent candor. Gates is an exemplar of a national public servant, patriotic, not flashy, makes no effort to present himself as a big conceptualizer, but someone who is able to generate informed opinions and options on an wide array of complicated subjects, while being able to get along with others at the highest levels of government. He’s the smart guy in the room who doesn’t seem to have his own agenda. He’s been in the room (as “notetaker”) when Zbigniew Brzezinski was trying to negotiate with the revolutionary government of Iran in 1979, and thirty years later as Secretary of Defense, alongside Ben Bernanke as the most important holdover from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.

Early attention devoted to the book has focused on Gates’s claim that Obama seemed less than enthusiastic about the “mission” in Afghanistan, while deferring in practice to the military’s judgement about what should be done. Despite inevitable denials, the truth of this assertion seemed almost too obvious, perhaps to Obama’s supporters most of all. Would it really have served Obama’s purposes to pick an open fight with the the top brass over Afghanistan early in his administration? Of course not. He went along with what the generals wanted.

What struck me as most important in Gates’s memoir were the frequent references to the dangers of allowing the United States to get sucked into into wars serving other country’s agendas, especially in the Mideast. These are, remember, the concerns not of a peacenik professor but a veteran Cold Warrior after a long career at the center of the American national security establishment. They make up an extremely important data point about where mainstream American security professionals see danger arising—and one which varies quite a bit from ostensible concerns of Congress or the most influential national media. I would argue that worry about being drawn into wars on behalf of allies, (or perhaps “allies”) is (alongside such estimable things as duty, honor, country) the central theme of Gates’s work.

Here is a sample of the passages pushing this theme:

[Saudi King] Abdullah … wanted a full-scale military attack on Iranian military targets, not just the nuclear sites. He warned that if we did not attack, the Saudis “must go our own way to protect our interests.” As far as I was concerned, he was asking the United States to send its sons and daughters into a war with Iran in order to protect the Saudi position in the Gulf and the region, as if we were mercenaries. He was asking us to shed American blood, but at no time did he suggest that any Saudi blood might be spilled. He went on and on about how the United States was seen as weak by governments in the region. The longer he talked, the angrier I got … and I responded quite undiplomatically. I told him that absent an Iranian military attack on U.S. forces or our allies, if the president launched another preventive war in the Middle East, he would likely be impeached; that we had our hands full in Iraq; and that the president would use military force only to protect vital American interests. I also told him that what he considered America’s greatest weakness—showing restraint—was actually great strength because we could crush any adversary. I told him that neither he nor anyone else should ever underestimate the strength and power of the United States: those who had— Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union were all now in the ashcan of history.

And this:

I recommended saying no to all the Israelis’ requests. Giving them any of the items on their new list would signal U.S. support for them to attack Iran unilaterally: “At that point, we lose our ability to control our own fate in the entire region.” I said we would be handing over the initiative regarding U.S. vital national interests to a foreign power, a government that , when we asked them not to attack Syria, did so anyway. We should offer to collaborate more closely with Israel, I continued, doing more on missile defense and other capabilities, “but Olmert should be told in the strongest possible terms not to act unilaterally.” The United States was not reconciled to Iran having nuclear weapons, but we needed a long-term solution, not just a one-to-three year delay.

Followed by

Aboard the plane, I became increasingly worried that the president might be persuaded by Cheney and Olmert to act or to enable the Israelis to act, especially if Condi’s position was softening. I decided to communicate once again with Bush privately. I said, We must not make our vital interests in the entire Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Southwest Asia hostage to another nation’s decisions—no matter how close an ally. Above all, we ought not risk what we have gained in Iraq or the lives of our soldiers there on an Israeli military gamble in Iran. Olmert has his own agenda, and he will pursue it irrespective of our interests.… We will be bystanders to actions that affect us directly and dramatically. … Most evidence suggests we have some time.… The military option probably remains available for several years.… A military attack by either Israel or the United States will, I believe—having watched these guys since 1979—guarantee that the Iranians will develop nuclear weapons, and seek revenge.… A surprise attack on Iran risks a further conflict in the Gulf and all its potential consequences, with no consultation with the Congress or foreknowledge on the part of the American people. That strikes me as very dangerous, and not just for sustaining our efforts in the Gulf.

Those who follow the Iran issue will be interested in Gate’s account of the triangular interplay between Israel, Washington, and Iran: One could easily conclude from the narrative that Israel was engaging in a kind of blackmail against the United States, requesting that it be paid off from launching an attack on Iran with an ever expanding wish list of new weapons deliveries. Gates, however, does not conclude this.

There are in addition fascinating vignettes and observations about figures who have been influential in American politics for the past generation. A meeting with Netanyahu (then a young foreign ministry official) as Bush 41’s deputy national security was enough to prompt Gates to request to Brent Scowcroft that Netanyahu never be allowed back on White House grounds. France’s Sarkozy took a cell phone call from his girlfriend Carla Bruni during a critical discussion of Iran. And if one ever needed reminding about how hawkish Dick Cheney really was, it is helpful to know that

And when the Soviet Union was collapsing in late 1991, Dick wanted to see the dismantlement not only of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire but of Russia itself, so it could never again be a threat to the rest of the world.

Bob Gates is already missed at the top levels of government.