Robert Gates’ “Duty” Presents ‘Fortuitous’ Insights

-A Book Review-

By Arelya J. Mitchell, Publisher/Editor-in-Chief
The Mid-South Tribune and the Black Information Highway

I was finishing up the first draft of a book review of “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” by former Secretary of Defense Robert “Bob” Gates when all hell broke out in the Ukraine. It was almost fortuitous how Gates’ book provided an uncanny insight into what is now an ongoing crisis.

As a matter of fact, my receiving a copy of Gates’ book was fortuitous in itself. I had once met Gates. I was one of 12 journalists invited to have luncheon one afternoon in the Roosevelt Room with President George H. W. Bush. My place card seated me directly across from the President and on my right side this little white card seated me next to Bob Gates. I glanced at him, hopefully I minded my manners and said ‘hello’, but I don’t remember. All I do remember is thinking: ‘Why are they sitting me next to the CIA Director?’ and then I went back to semi-hammering the President about what would become an impending Gulf War with such pseudonyms as “Desert Storm” and “Shock and Awe”. Anyway, I doubt very seriously if Gates even has any memory of this, and in spite of my semi-hammering the President, I did receive a surprising second White House invitation.

This was an animated afternoon which is now stilled in an official White House photograph which has become part of the history of my life. (Just for the record: To those who are staunch this or staunch that, I play no political favorites for I have interviewed presidents, senators, and other politicos across party lines and have covered national conventions of both Democrats and Republicans and their respective politics… Now let’s get on with this, shall we?)

“Duty” does not deal with George H. W. Bush’s presidential term except for a tad bit reference here and there. Gates has served under eight presidents. “Duty” deals with two of them: President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

The book jacket shows a full face photo of Gates which I thought depicted a man not to be F— ed with. I thought it mirrors not only Gates’ frustration and seriousness – but yes, his anger and disgust in an environment where ‘duty’ had perhaps become a four-letter word.

When “Duty” was released, the controversy surrounding it centered on whether or not it should have been released while President Obama was still in office. Well, seeing that Edward Snowden is sipping a Black Russian cocktail and munching on caviar with Vladimir Putin releasing “Duty” seems inconsequential. And seeing what is presently going on in the Ukraine with Crimea, I am glad it hit the bookshelves and Kindles because what Gates does is provide a background of both Bush and Obama which gives insight into Russia becoming a 21st Century international player. It examines the fumbles and miscalculations of both administrations regarding Russia’s reentry into Georgia and Ukraine, respectively.
In flashback and in light of the Ukrainian fiasco, Gates first gives insight to Obama as a commander- in-chief on how Obama handled the hotly debated question of whether or not to send in a surge of new troops into Afghanistan:

“The meeting was unlike any I ever attended in the Oval Office. Obama, Biden, Mullen, Cartwright, Patraeus, Emanuel, Jones, and I were there…Then there was an exchange that’s seared into my memory. Joe Biden said he had argued for a different approach and was ready to move forward, but the military ‘should consider the president’s decision as an order’. ‘I am giving an order,’ Obama quickly said. I was shocked. I had never heard a president explicitly frame a decision as a direct order. With the American military, it is completely unnecessary….Former Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, in his book ‘It Worked for Me,’ writes, ‘In my thirty-five years of service, I don’t ever recall telling anyone, ‘That’s an order’. And now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever heard anyone else say it.’ Obama’s ‘order’, at Biden’s urging, demonstrated, in my view, the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture. That order was unnecessary and insulting, proof positive of the depth of the Obama White House’s distrust of the nation’s military leadership.”

This is all detailed in the chapter “Afghanistan: A House Divided” and is one of the most compelling. Good stuff. Really good stuff.

But if you want a douse of cold vodka thrown in your face then read and re-read the Russia section of the chapter entitled “Difficult Foes, Difficult Friends”. Gates doesn’t hold back when he elaborates on what the Obama administration called a “New Start” which morphed such ‘strategic arms reduction treaties’ as SALT, START, and SORT —or as Gates called them “acronym hell”—into yes, a ‘New Start’ initiative with Russia. He writes: “…I informed the president a few days later that at the exact moment of the signing ceremony, the Russian military had been conducting a nuclear attack exercise against the United States. A nice Putin touch, I thought.”

If the reader is expecting a stilted style of writing, this is not. The narrative flows easily; therefore, in that sense it is commercially written. “Duty” would make a good summer beach read (though not a quick one!). Okay, I would like to see “Duty, the movie”, for it lends itself to that “Primary Colors” or “All the President’s Men” movie niche.

And speaking of the latter, a Washington Post story written by famed Watergate busting reporter Bob Woodward which allegedly resulted from 21st Century White House leaks became the object of Obama’s ire. From that Afghanistan chapter, Gates says: “The Post had given us advance warning it was going to run the story, and over the weekend Cartwright, Flournoy, and Geoff Morrell negotiated with Woodward and others from the Post to remove sensitive numbers, references…They had some success, but they could not redact the political bombshell the story represented…After I left office, I was chagrined to hear from an insider I trust that McChrystal’s staff had leaked the assessment out of impatience with both the Pentagon and the White House….”
Gates goes on: “Anger and suspicion were further fueled six days later when CBS-TV program 60 Minutes aired an interview with McChrystal…An infuriated president, Mullen and I repeatedly discussed what he regarded as military pressure on him… ‘Is it a lack of respect for me? Are they [‘he meant Petraeus, McChrystal, and Mullen] (Note: These are Gates’ brackets) trying to box me in? …Do they resent that I never served in the military? Do they think because I’m young that I don’t see what they’re doing?’ …Again and again I tried to persuade Obama that there was no plan, no coordinated effort by the three military men to jam him…”

In spite of the controversy regarding how maybe Gates trashed Obama, he in fact provides a balanced assessment of both Obama’s and George W. Bush’s administrations and of the men themselves. Gates even provides some accolades of Obama such as: “But Obama and I were both embarking on uncharted waters in the middle of two wars. There was no precedent, since the creation of the Defense Department in 1947, for a sitting secretary to stay on in a newly elected administration, even when the same party held on to the White House…”

And in all fairness regarding that “uncharted waters in the middle of two wars…” it is George W. Bush who was responsible for that ‘water’ even if Gates found it upsetting that Obama did not take ownership of the two wars he inherited. Gates’ reasoning was that once you are elected president whatever mess is leftover you inherit it and you would do best to man up to the task. Just as presidents inherit debts, presidents also inherit wars.

What is also pronounced in my opinion is how undermined Gates was in the Obama administration; how Gates, a political veteran, is thrown into an administration and into a protocol of nouveau politicos where ego serves as the adrenaline for getting something done—or not done—or undone. It was a typical case of classic Generation Gap which should have had no place in structuring foreign policy.

Gates writes: “… [F]or the first several months under Obama, it took a lot of discipline to sit quietly at the table as everyone from the president on down took shots at Bush and his team. Sitting there, I would often think to myself, ‘Am I invisible?’ During those excoriations, there was never any acknowledgement that I had been an integral part of that earlier team.”
The further I read into Gates’ memoir, the more I viewed Vice President Joe Biden as being more cause-and-effect on the Obama administration than perhaps he should be. Biden serves as a quasi-envoy between the generations, though I’ve often suspected that Biden was a trial balloon incarnate or the prankster who opens his big mouth and controversial issues spew out like the green vomit in the Exorcist (e.g. the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell military policy which Biden commented on allegedly before the administration was ready to deal with the policy or even before the military could revisit it. Gates does discuss this topic’s ramifications at length.)

Gates writes that he was surprised that President Obama asked him to serve as Secretary of Defense in the first place, yet he felt a ‘duty’ to do so as he had with previous presidents who had asked him. (One has to only read how he came back into this White House world with President George W. Bush to see this public servant quality about him).

What is missing in “Duty” is that elephant in the room that these recent books/memoirs in this ilk fail to address which is that Barack Obama is unique in that he is America’s first Black president. That in itself should serve as a legitimate variable in Gates’ or anybody else’s panoramic assessment of the Obama administration in comparing it to lily white presidencies. Not that it is the only variable; but nevertheless, a very significant variable. (It would be the same once the first female is elected president, though I highly suspect that discussing the first female would be less cumbersome and less sensitive than discussing the first Black, a point very much indicative of how race remains a factor in the political-socio makeup. Besides, the first female more than likely will be Caucasian anyway. )
In somewhat addressing this elephant in all its political correctness, Gates simply points out that America is a great nation because it provided this unique opportunity “…where dreams come true. Where an African-American can become president. And where a kid from Kansas…became secretary of defense of the most powerful nation in history…”

What Gates provides – albeit inadvertently—is a disturbing picture of the naiveté of a post-Civil Rights generational Black (Obama) believing because he is the total package (e.g. pedigree degrees, social set, etc.) that he actually resides in a Post Racial America and what is even more disturbing is that Gates—albeit inadvertently– depicts a post-Civil Rights generational Caucasian (Obama’s staff) which believes it too resides in a Post Racial America.

Ironically, this is the beauty of Gates’ book: He is perhaps among the first (if not the first) to define this political-socio paradox of race in the highest quarters of the Executive Branch, the presidency—without setting out to do so.
An Old Guard like Gates knows race can be a factor but moreover he feels himself as having a “Duty”—(pardon the pun) to carry out because whoever holds the title of president is to be respected as such. He’s built that way. It is his type of glue which the Obama administration pulled apart then set outside to freeze.

I am suspecting that Gates would not have published a memoir while Obama’s predecessors were still sitting presidents. But it was a different world even when George W. Bush ascended to the Oval Office in the 21st Century. It was not an era of Facebook, Tweets, Yahoo, Google, Bing, blogs, websites—you get my drift. That different world aspect also represented a protocol, a rule of thought, a rule of carrying out presidential directives (whether one agreed with them or not). What Gates constantly kept experiencing was that ego played on a Generation Gap landscape continued to be the driving force in policy making. To reiterate, this is where the immaturity lies in the Obama administration.
Gates observes how Obama is constantly viewing that his policies are being questioned because of his youth. As a reader, I am asking myself ‘what youth?’ The youngest president was Theodore Roosevelt; the youngest ‘elected’ president was John F. Kennedy–and there have been others in their 40’s elected to the highest office in the land such as Bill Clinton. Or could it be that the president in some Freudian fashion wants to say ‘race’ instead of ‘youth’? But, of course, that’s being politically incorrect.

“Duty” is important. It should be a mandatory read to political science and history students because it is among the first—if not the first—of an interwoven historical account of America fighting two wars at once and because it deals with the historical significance of America’s first Black president. Gates provides solid accounts which neither shy away from objective and subjective analysis nor from the rocky landscape of executive decision making. Gates’ boldness is why the book became raw meat for a dog pound of pundits.

“Duty” is also important because—aforementioned– Gates provides an insight into Russia which has eerily projected itself onto what became events that unraveled a 2014 Ukraine and possibly brought back the Cold War.

If one were to do a content analysis, “Duty” morphs into a paradigm in analyzing America’s foreign policy for future crisis management.


About blackinformationhighway

Arelya J. Mitchell is an award winning journalist, editor-in-chief, publisher of The Mid-South Tribune and the Black Information Highway. She holds degrees in journalism and political science (specializing in international relations, comparative politics, and political analysis)
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