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Robert Gates: Point Counterpoint

On its official publication date this past Tuesday, Robert Gates’s Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War was the subject of two substantial pieces in the Wall Street Journal. In his weekly column, Bret Stephens rendered the judgment that Gates would better have remained silent than published the book he has written. Stephens’s column ran next to a review by General Jack Keane (ret.) praising the book without qualification. Taken together, although Stephens and Keane don’t directly engage each other, the column and the review present a kind of Point Counterpoint in the old-fashioned 60 Minutes style about the book.

Both Stephens’s column and Keane’s review are behind the Journal’s loosely guarded subscription paywall. You can dig them up via Google under the headings “Robert Gates’s dereliction of ‘Duty’” (Stephens) and “Book review: ‘Duty,’ by Robert M. Gates” (Keane). Stephens extracts what he characterizes as the “unwitting revelations” of Gates’s book:

Take this vignette from 2010: That January, Mr. Gates called for “a highly restricted meeting of the principals to discuss the possibility of conflict with Iran with little or no advance notice.” Nothing happened for a few months, until a story somehow appeared in the New York Times NYT -0.52% saying nothing was happening. Three days later, the principals met with the president in the Oval Office.

Mr. Gates describes the meeting in detail and then concludes with this nugget:

“I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting. To his very closest advisers, he said, ‘For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decisions about Israel or Iran. Joe [Biden], you be my witness.’ I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.”

This is related without irony on page 393.

But it isn’t only the president’s sensitivity that angered Mr. Gates. “I was more or less continuously outraged by the parochial self-interest of all but a very few members of Congress,” he writes. When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided in 2007 to strike Syria’s nuclear reactor and asked Mr. Bush not to disclose the existence of the reactor publicly—a request Mr. Bush honored—”I was furious.” When, two years later, Benjamin Netanyahu pressed him to provide Israel with advanced military equipment to counterbalance a $60 billion arms sales to Saudi Arabia he is, again, “furious.” On Libya: “I had considered resigning over the Libya issue.”

He didn’t, of course.

“I did not enjoy being secretary of defense,” Mr. Gates writes at one point in the book. Fair enough; he could have retired after serving out the remainder of President Bush’s term. He didn’t. “People have no idea how much I detest this job,” he quotes from an email he wrote in mid-2008, trying to scotch rumors that he would serve under the next administration. Fair enough; he could have turned down Mr. Obama’s offer when it was made. He didn’t. “If you want me to stay for about a year, I will do so,” he told Mr. Obama after the 2008 election. Fair enough; he could have kept the promise to the letter. He didn’t; he stayed on for another 29 months.

Those are choices Mr. Gates made for his own reasons. Serving as secretary of defense, after all, isn’t really a duty; it’s an honor and a privilege.

Honors and privileges, however, do have duties. One is: Don’t treat them as a burden. Another is: Don’t betray the confidence of those who bestow them on you. A third is: Resignation is honorable, but the tell-all memoir against a president still in office is not. When people wonder why Mr. Obama seems to listen only to Valerie Jarrett and other hacks, maybe it’s because at least he can count on their loyalty.

By contrast, General Keane speaks highly of Gates and the book:

Duty” is a refreshingly honest memoir and a moving one. Mr. Gates scrupulously identifies his flaws and mistakes: He waited too long, for example, for the military bureaucracy to fix critical supply issues like the drones needed in Iraq and took three years to replace a dysfunctional command structure in Afghanistan.

He also makes it plain that he disliked the job, which required extraordinary forbearance in dealing with a politicized Congress and, later, the amateurish Obama White House staff, and that his dedication to it sprang from his love for the troops and a sense of personal responsibility for them. The memoir ends poignantly with his request to be buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, with the soldiers who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

*****

[T]he U.S. is on the edge of losing the wars Mr. Gates fought so hard to win. The withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq has led to the collapse of almost all the gains our troops made in the surge. The defeatists in the White House now seem poised to persuade the president yet again to embrace failure by refusing to keep an adequate number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan after 2014.

How can the president order young men and women into a fight in which he doesn’t believe? That is one of many questions that ring in the ear after reading “Duty.” No doubt this is why Mr. Gates felt the need to write it now, when there is still time for this president to rethink his commitment to the men and women waging war at his direction.

Not having read the book, I can only say that both reviews are worth reading.

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