Robert Gates memoir shocks Washington

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is the first to offer a scathing critique of President Obama and his administration from within the Cabinet.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Robert Gates testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense on Capitol Hill in Washington.

As far as political memoirs go, this one is a bombshell. 

Shockwaves are already rippling through Washington as early reports circulate of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ forthcoming memoir, in which he slams Congress and former colleagues in the White House over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” is set to be released Jan. 14. The Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt Wednesday.

The nearly 600-page book is the first to serve up a scathing critique of President Obama and his administration from within the Cabinet, which makes it that much more controversial. Gates calls the Obama White House “by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.”

President George W. Bush appointed Gates in the final years of his term and he stayed on into the Obama administration. In his book, he says he wanted to quit his post multiple times. 

“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,” he writes.

And according to the Washington Post, he once e-mailed a friend while still serving, “People have no idea how much I detest this job.”

Gates attributes his distaste for the position to a weak commander-in-chief and incompetent Congress.

Gates says Obama’s greatest fault was losing faith in his own troop surge policy in Afghanistan.

“I never doubted Obama's support for the troops," Gates writes, “only his support for their mission.”

The real venom is saved for Congress.

“Such difficulties within the executive branch were nothing compared with the pain of dealing with Congress,” Gates writes. “Congress is best viewed from a distance – the farther the better – because up close, it is truly ugly. I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.” 

He also writes about congressional hearings “where rude, insulting, belittling, bullying and all too often highly personal attacks on witnesses by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior. Members postured and acted as judge, jury and executioner.”

Ultimately, summarizing his time working with Congress and the White House, Gates delivers a sad verdict: “Our political system has rarely been so polarized and unable to execute even the basic functions of government.”

The dysfunction Gates witnessed was likely particularly disturbing given the grisly realities of war the former Defense Secretary witnessed on a regular basis.

“I saw up close the cost in lives ruined and lives lost,” Gates writes, seemingly cautioning readers against US militaristic involvement.

“War's a lot easier to get into than out of,” Gates says, adding, “Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

“This is particularly worth remembering as technology changes the face of war. A button is pushed in Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. A bomb destroys the targeted house on the right and leaves the one on the left intact. For too many people – including defense 'experts,' members of Congress, executive branch officials and ordinary citizens – war has become a kind of videogame or action movie: bloodless, painless and odorless.” 

Critics have questioned why Gates chose to publish this bombshell of a memoir while his former boss and commander-in-chief, Obama, is still in office. 

Throughout their working relationship, Gates and Obama have, publicly at least, had nothing but praise for one another, so this memoir must be a bit of a surprise for the White House.

According to CNN, a former White House official contested the excerpts saying, "I thought the President was a close ally of Gates. It's disappointing, because if Gates had issues you would've expected him to raise them. When I spoke to Gates about the president he was always effusive."

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the President "deeply appreciates Gates' service" and is open to hearing differing points of view from his national security team.

For his part, Gates has written, “I have tried to be fair in describing actions and motivations of others.” 

We’re betting “Duty” will be the talk of Washington for some time.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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