Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ Memoir Doesn’t Make Anyone Look Good

Donald Rumsfeld’s successor has penned a book that includes some sharply honest takes on his former colleagues.

Robert Gates answers questions from the media during a press briefing September 23, 2010 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
National Journal
Marina Koren and Matt Berman
Add to Briefcase
Marina Koren Matt Berman
Jan. 7, 2014, 11:02 a.m.

Former De­fense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates’ mem­oir is 640 pages long. And at least some of those pages aren’t filled with warm re­flec­tions of a ca­reer well-spent.

Gates does not have kind words for his former boss, Barack Obama.

“The pres­id­ent doesn’t trust his com­mand­er,” Gates writes in Duty: Mem­oirs of a Sec­ret­ary at War, out next week, re­flect­ing on a March 2011 meet­ing on Afghan policy. Obama “can’t stand [Afghan Pres­id­ent Ham­id] Kar­zai, doesn’t be­lieve in his own strategy and doesn’t con­sider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about get­ting out.”

Gates does not have kind words for his former col­league, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden.

The vice pres­id­ent is “a man of in­teg­rity,” Gates writes, but he’s been “wrong on nearly every ma­jor for­eign policy and na­tion­al se­cur­ity is­sue over the past four dec­ades.”

Gates does not have kind words for an­oth­er former col­league, Hil­lary Clin­ton. From The Wash­ing­ton Post:

“Hil­lary told the pres­id­ent that her op­pos­i­tion to the [2007] surge in Ir­aq had been polit­ic­al be­cause she was fa­cing him in the Iowa primary…. The pres­id­ent con­ceded vaguely that op­pos­i­tion to the Ir­aq surge had been polit­ic­al. To hear the two of them mak­ing these ad­mis­sions, and in front of me, was as sur­pris­ing as it was dis­may­ing.”

Well, maybe a few kind words:

“I found her smart, ideal­ist­ic but prag­mat­ic, tough-minded, in­defatig­able, funny, a very valu­able col­league, and a su­perb rep­res­ent­at­ive of the United States all over the world.”

Gates does not have kind words for two oth­er former col­leagues, Thomas Doni­lon or then-Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute. They were “ag­gress­ive, sus­pi­cious, and some­times con­des­cend­ing and in­sult­ing” to­ward mil­it­ary lead­ers.

Gates does not have kind words for even him­self. From The New York Times:

He de­scribes how he came to feel “an over­whelm­ing sense of per­son­al re­spons­ib­il­ity” for the troops he ordered in­to com­bat, which left him misty-eyed when dis­cuss­ing their sac­ri­fices — and per­haps clouded his judg­ment when cold­hearted na­tion­al se­cur­ity in­terests were at stake.

There may be more words where those came from. From the ex­cerpts in The Wash­ing­ton Postand New York Times, the mem­oir ap­pears to be a rare, rich look in­to how the George W. Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions con­duc­ted wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, with no hits spared for any­one in­volved.

Gates, The Post‘s Bob Wood­ward points out, has served every pres­id­ent since Richard Nix­on, Bill Clin­ton aside. This isn’t just poin­ted cri­ti­cism com­ing from a hack, or someone who has a par­tic­u­lar par­tis­an bone to pick. It’s com­ing from a guy who knows gov­ern­ment, knows mil­it­ary, and knows war bet­ter than nearly any­one else on the semipolit­ic­al scene. Even if you don’t agree with every stra­tegic de­cision the guy’s ever made, it’s hard not to take his cri­tiques of how the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is run ser­i­ously.

And as The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Chris Cil­lizza is already mak­ing clear, Gates’ cri­ti­cisms aren’t likely to drift away:

Gates’ ver­sion of why Clin­ton op­posed the surge fits per­fectly in­to this ex­ist­ing good-polit­ics-makes-good-policy nar­rat­ive about the former Sec­ret­ary of State. And that’s what makes it dan­ger­ous for her — and why you can be sure she (or her people) will (and must) dis­pute Gates’ re­col­lec­tion quickly and defin­it­ively.

Hear that, 2016?

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