Friday, January 24, 2014

The Two Minds of Robert Gates

At the end of his remarkable memoir on his time as Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates poses a question for himself:
Treated better for longer than almost anyone in a senior position I could remember during the eight presidencies in which I served, why did I feel I was constantly at war with everybody, as I have detailed in these pages? Why was I so often so angry? Why did I so dislike being back in government and in Washington?
--Gates, Robert M (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 10314-10317). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Gates offers his own answer: "It was because, despite everyone being 'nice,' getting anything of consequence done was so damnably difficult even in the midst of two wars."  Fair enough, although I can offer him a consolation: however "damnably difficult" these encounters may have been to live through, still the recounting of them is precisely what makes his memoir so fascinating.  Yet, while I don't reject his own analysis, I think I can offer a further explanation: I think one reason he found it all so "damnably difficult" is that he was constantly at war with himself.

Review the evidence.  On any soundbyte divide between hawks and doves, Gates counts as a hawk.   He thought it important to "stay the course" (ugh) in both Afghanistan and Iraq: he felt certain that we had a constructive role to play in rebuilding each country (which we, one might add, had played so great a role in destroying in the first place).  He admires and largely trusts the military leadership.  And presses more than once his view that both  that both Bush and Obama got the big decisions right.

Yet he is the most cautious of hawks.  He's concerned almost to the point of obsession with the well-being of the troops: he takes almost every casualty as his personal responsibility.  Repeatedly he raises the question of what will happen next?  Can we do this?  Can afford not to do it?  Are we doing it in the right way?

After a while, you begin to see a larger theme.  Gates does say he feels that Obama didn't have his heart in the Afghan War (indeed, this is about the only thing that most reviewers want to quote).  Yet in time, you can see that Gates is at best ambivalent about it himself.   He doesn't want us to leave Afghanistan until he has done what we can to establish a secure an orderly nation.  Yet here is Gates himself, writing on what he saw in 2010 in the runup to the Afghan elections: 
Embassy polling showed that in 2005 about 80 percent of Afghans saw us as allies and partners; by summer 2009, after nearly eight years of war, that was down to 60 percent. As I thought about the tipping point, it seemed to me we had several vulnerabilities with the Afghan population. One was civilian casualties; every incident was a strategic defeat, often caused and always manipulated by the Taliban and then magnified by Karzai. Another was our thoughtless treatment of the Afghans in routine encounters, including U.S. and coalition military vehicles barreling down the roads scattering animals and scaring people. We often disrespected their culture or Islam and failed to cultivate their elders. We collaborated with Afghan officials who were ripping off ordinary citizens. In Kabul and all over the country, we and our coalition partners, as well as nongovernmental organizations, far too routinely decided what development projects to undertake without consulting the Afghans, much less working with or through them on what they wanted and needed. Was it any wonder that Karzai and others complained they had no authority in their own country? Or that even reasonably honest and competent Afghan officials got no respect from their fellow citizens? For all our hand-wringing and hectoring about corruption, we seemed oblivious to how much we were contributing to it, and on a scale that dwarfed the drug trade. Tens of billions of dollars were flooding into Afghanistan from the United States and our partners, and we turned a blind eye or simply were ignorant of how regularly some portion was going to payoffs, bribes, and bank accounts in Dubai. Our own inspectors identified how lousy— or nonexistent— U.S. government controls were. From Karzai on down, Afghans had to shake their heads at our complaints about their corruption when elements of the American government (and almost certainly a number of our closest allies) were paying off them and their relatives as agents and to secure their cooperation. Hillary Clinton and I repeatedly objected to this contradictory behavior by the United States, but to no avail.
Gates, Robert M (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 6513-6522). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

This is a damning indictment, not so?  And it is really nothing new, yes?  Gates (channeling Fred Kagan)  makes a point of insisting that "We're Not the Soviets in Afghanistan."  That is probably true; it is equally true that we aren't the Japanese Imperial Army in Nanking.  We're full of good intentions.  Yet at least since Vietnam and certainly since Iraq, we've piled up an abundance of evidence to tell us that we really don't know how to play this game--that, despite the best efforts of the best military leadership, we wind up wreaking the same kind of havoc and generating the same kinds of resentments that we tell ourselves we want to avoid.

Update:  moments after hitting "post," I ran across this.


Anonymous said...

Gates still thinks starting the war against Iraq. All of the stated reasons set forth by the Bush-Cheney administration for starting the war against Iraq were, for all the world to see, were untrue. That takes a toll both internationally and domestically.

The biggest winner from starting the war against Iraq was Iran. Next came as Qaeda and its affiliates who gained an unprecedented increase in volunteers. The British Ministry of Defense called it a "Recruiting Sargent" for these groups.

The biggest loser was the Iraqi people, both the unknown number if dead and wounded as well as millions of displaced both internally and externally.

The U.S. lost 4,478 soldiers with nearly 32,000 wounded, thousands with loss of one or more limbs, horrible groin and genital injuries, horrific burns, paralysis, brain and psychiatric injuries. It cost in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars. And, we don't know the real reason why they did it.

The only reason Assad is still in power is the cooperation of Iraq through Iraq which was made possible by the U.S. starting this war.

So how can Gates possibly think the Bush-Cheney administration was right in starting that war when Iraq posed not immanent threat to the U.S. or anyone else?

How can Gates assert his subjective perception of Obama's passion bucket with respect to the Afghan surge?

Davis X. Machina said...

So how can Gates possibly think the Bush-Cheney administration was right in starting that war when Iraq posed not immanent threat to the U.S. or anyone else?

Two words. Team spirit.