Obama replaces Afghanistan commander McChrystal in Washington
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Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, by Robert Gates, WH Allen, RRP£25/ Knopf, RRP$35, 640 pages

Among US public servants of his generation, Robert Gates is one of the few to command deep respect across the board. Though a registered Republican, and a Reagan-era hawk, the former defence secretary under George W Bush and Barack Obama may even be better liked by Democrats. Reticent, professional, discreet, bipartisan and diligent are all words that spring to mind. “Yoda” was his nickname among Obama’s people, in reference to the sapient Jedi knight in Star Wars.

With the publication of Gates’s lengthy memoir, however, Washington is questioning whether that stock political adjective “loyal” can still be applied. Duty has ignited a fresh storm over Obama’s allegedly shallow motives in his handling of the Afghanistan war – a charge well-flagged in previous books, including by former Obama officials. Joe Biden, the vice-president, takes some pointedly harsh criticism. Obama is depicted as political to the point of cynicism, losing faith in his own Afghanistan surge before he had even ordered it. Meanwhile, most of his White House team are written off as callow operatives with no experience of the world outside their bubble. All in all it makes for a compelling news story, particularly given the crossroads the US now faces in Afghanistan.

As a journalist, I agree with what has been highlighted about this book in the US media. As a reviewer, considering Duty in its entirety, my take­away is somewhat different from the headlines. The most striking aspect is how gently Gates dishes out his criticisms. Of the book’s more than 600 pages, perhaps only 10 would reflect badly on either president that he served as Pentagon chief.

Gates is disappointed at how calculating Obama can be. In one much-quoted passage, he expresses shock at the casual way in which both Obama and Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, admitted to having opposed Bush’s 2007 Iraq surge purely for electoral reasons. Gates was cajoled into service by Bush to oversee the surge in Iraq; he was retained by Obama to oversee the one in Afghanistan in 2009. You might dub him a surgeocrat. But kiss-and-tell memoirist would be taking it too far. Here is a passage that recurs many times in one form or another. “Although, as I’ve said, political considerations were far more a part of national security debates under Obama, time and again I saw him make a decision that was opposed by his political advisers”. Or this: “Fortunately, the rancor and bitterness of the Afghan debate in late 2009 did not spill over into other areas, and the team worked together better than most I had observed.”

In all, Gates has served eight presidents. Some of his observations reflect his deeply ingrained loyalty to the office of the US commander-in-chief – a chloroformic patriotism envelops much of the book. But there is no doubt that he left with a strong personal respect for Obama. After one of the few occasions when Gates and Obama lost their tempers – over a relatively modest dispute on the Pentagon budget – the president mollifies his Pentagon chief with the gift of a bottle of vodka. On it he attached a note apologising for having pushed Gates to drink. “Obama was civil in his impatience,” Gates writes, “never nasty, cutting, or personal.”

In contrast, Gates can barely disguise his contempt for other Washington institutions – not least the department that he headed. “My war with the Pentagon” is how he frames his relationship with the $700bn-a-year behemoth. Dealing with the intractable conflict in Afghanistan took up a lot of everyone’s time, and still does. Yet it is easy to imagine Gates’s fruitless struggle to reform the Pentagon – cutting needlessly expensive weapons systems, for example, or persuading military chiefs to rise above their turf interests – being replayed by his successors long after the US has quit that “graveyard of empires”.

“No one knew what anyone else was doing,” Gates observes of a department that spends $10bn a year on information technology systems that are unable to communicate with each other. If there are bigger lessons from Gates’s book, the near-impossibility of reforming a hidebound Pentagon is among its strongest. Early in his tenure Gates said he preferred conversations with the top brass to “death by PowerPoint”. It was a modest request that his staff ignored. The ponderous slideshow carried on. “I was not just defeated,” says Gates. “I was routed.”

Gates is even less inhibited in his criticisms of America’s elected representatives. From a distance, he respects the US first branch of government. “Up close it is truly ugly,” he says. In public, Congress is strongly in favour of a streamlined and more efficient Pentagon. In private, most lawmakers strain every sinew to ensure the opposite, he says. It is no accident that defence contractors spread work on the hugely expensive – and problem-plagued – F22 jet fighter programme across 46 states and a majority of congressional districts. Most of the time, the Pentagon colludes with Congress to perpetuate the waste and duplication. Reformers such as Gates are defeated before they even begin. “I’m getting too old for this shit,” he tells an aide at one point. “People have no idea how much I detest this job,” he says at another, referring this time to the heavier burdens of waging war. It is not hard to believe him.

Duty would have benefited from being shorter. Yet is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of what makes Washington tick. Inevitably, it will be remembered for what Gates says about Obama and his youthful loyalists “sniffing at the hems of power”. As a call to action, however, it is unlikely to have much impact. More importantly, Gates’s valiant efforts during two presidencies to pacify faraway lands may ultimately have come to nought. As Iraq descends into another civil war and Afghanistan disgorges yet another hegemon, Washington is squabbling over who to blame. “We entered both countries oblivious to how little we knew,” writes Gates. His book offers scant reassurance that anything fundamental has changed.

Edward Luce is the FT’s Washington columnist and author of ‘Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline’ (Little, Brown)

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