Sunday, January 19, 2014

honorable "Duty"

Robert Gates' memoir as Secretary of Defense, though tellingly subtitled "Secretary at War," is an excellent book -- honest, clear, revealing, personal yet also analytical, far better than the usual Washington memoir.The best journalistic review I've seen is Fred Kaplan's, which captures many of my own reactions to the 600-page volume.

Gates is far less strident than most of the cherry-picked quotes in news stories. He expresses his anger at some behaviors, especially by members of Congress, but documents the actions that provoked him. Overall, however, he seems to understand the motivations of those who disagreed with him and tries rationally to justify his own positions.

He makes clear why, as I concluded in my own comparative study of earlier Secretaries of Defense, that position is a nearly impossible job. He details with vivid examples the many simultaneous, exhausting duties of a defense secretary -- running two wars, obtaining budgetary support, attending policy meetings, traveling worldwide in diplomatic roles, and leading the large collection of bureaucracies that is the Defense Department.

Yet Gates succeeded better than any of his predecessors by maintaining a close and trusting relationship with two quite different presidents, by working collaboratively with his NSC colleagues, by developing a close professional relationship of trust with the senior military, and by maintaining a good relationship with Congress, despite his disdain of many members.

I scour such books looking for sections I can assign to students so that they can get a first-person picture of the policy process. Gates provides long chapters on the Obama decision to surge troops into Afghanistan, the administration's reaction to the Arab spring and the bombing of Libya, and various other events. He also has well-crafted general observations of how government works and what might make it work better.

Some reviewers seem to feel that, if he was so upset at different times, he should have resigned -- or at least spoken out publicly. I disagree. He acted professionally as I hope any military leader would -- giving his professional advice in private and then loyally supporting presidential decisions. He didn't leak. He held subordinates accountable. He did his duty.

No comments:

Post a Comment