“Duty, Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” the recent controversial book by former defense secretary Robert M. Gates, is a disturbing book.
It is disturbing whether you are supporter of President Obama or an Obama hating republican or just someone who doesn’t fit into any category like me: a liberty-loving person who admires the trade-oriented, peaceful Little Englanders of the mid-19th century, George Washington’s “isolationist” (sic) Farewell Address and any opponent, left, right or in the middle, of militarism and empires.
Anyone, I believe, with a sense of American history—the anti-militarist, unfortunately often forgotten, traditions of our first century from 1776 to the awful, superfluous Spanish-American War of 1898—must finish Gates’ book in a state of despair. Gates constantly bemoans the bureaucracy and the pols hindering the efforts of American armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. (He complains that Hillary Clinton, running for president in 2008, opposed the surge for political reasons).
But Gates never asks the most basic questions: What are we doing in all these countries killing and bombing? And more importantly, do we actually have the wisdom to remake nations many Americans couldn’t find on a map?
Even though Gates believes that Obama, and many of his political people seem to have contempt for the generals who had to carry out the policies, the bigger issues triggered by this book are never explored: Why is the United States committed to policing the world? Indeed, why do Americans go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” (the famous phrase of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who insisted that Americans should not intervene around the world) when our governments’ bungling at home. Our government has created plenty of monsters at home that need to be destroyed before they destroy our liberties.
Gates had decades in the national security state, beginning as a CIA analyst. He has a doctorate in Soviet studies, but speaks no Russian. (How is this possible? Secretary of State Rice also has a doctorate in the same discipline and speaks Russian). He was uniquely positioned to carry out this America must rule the world policy. Gates was brought in by a republican president as defense secretary in 2006 as the disastrous Iraqi and Afghanistan wars were spinning out of control. Then the succeeding democratic president, Barack Obama, supposedly a critic of these wars, asked him to stay on as defense secretary. Later war “critic” President Obama sent some 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
Obama was asked by George McGovern how he could send additional troops to Afghanistan. Obama, McGovern re-counts in his book “What It Means to Be a Democrat,” will tell him that’s what the generals told him what to do. McGovern told the president that the American people didn’t elect the generals president. They elected him. Bien dicho, Senor McGovern!
Another alarming part of the book is Gates often depicts a disengaged president. Obama at one point tells him that he ran for president because he was “bored” by the U.S. Senate, where he had been serving for only a few years before launching his bid for the presidency. Gates also complained that Obama wanted to disassociate himself from responsibility for these wars. How could this be? Obama was now president.
The president’s problem is these wars became his responsibility in 2009 in part based on his telling the American people on the hustings that he had solutions. President Obama seemed caught in an Oscar Wilde trap: “Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.”
Like it or not, Obama was stuck with the lease for Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the rest of the myriad national security commitments around the world unless he was willing to break with American imperial traditions, which he wasn’t.
Indeed, on Afghanistan, Obama ultimately agreed to send more troops. He repeated many of the mistakes of President George W. Bush, who Gates praises as someone who was well briefed on foreign policy. Still, most books recounting the run up to the war in 2003 depict a disengaged president; that Bush wasn’t forcing himself to hear maverick views but determined to go to war once the nation was attacked in September 2001 (One of many problems with this Gates contention is that Bush, in his own book, “Primary Decisions,” concedes that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. And no one has ever established a connection between Hussein and Osama bin-Laden. So there was no justification for war in 2003; just a lot of useless, sickening death).
Gates also recounts how Obama and his political advisers started to argue with the military; how the politicians seemed to have little or no respect for the military. He, in effect, is making the case that Obama, either by lack of experience or by omission, had little chance of formulating effective national security policies. Here he makes a good point. This is Obama’s first executive job ever: He never managed a state. He never managed a city. He never managed a candy store.
In foreign affairs Obama is obviously no Charles de Gaulle, who was brought back to power in France in the midst of the Fourth Republic coming apart over the Algerian war in 1958. After pursuing a failed policy—trying to win a dirty war that included torture and many civilian deaths—De Gaulle finally realized the futility of this policy. He changed course. He saved France. He pulled France out of Algeria.
He also later warned America about getting bogged down in Vietnam. Our presidents knew better (sic) and ignored his advice because the French were “losers.” (That is a mistake. One can often learn much more from losing in something than winning. There are some losers who became winners because they understand this. One person who proved this was Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, and a man who failed with a number of retailing models before succeeding as detailed in his book “Made in America”).
Ultimately, the problem with “Duty” is the same problem with American foreign policy since the 1940s and the days of the Truman Doctrine. The latter was a justification for the United States intervening around the world and for constantly arming to fight multiple wars. A new president may tinker on the edges, but no president will make a dramatic change in this bellicose model.
I believe that America, especially in it’s, “we must police the world, even when a lot of it wants no part of us,” foreign policy has betrayed the principles of its founding. This happens in part because many Americans are historical illiterates since many of our young people attend egregious state schools.
Yet books like “Duty” remind us that we have forgotten our origins. Our nation revolted against the British Empire. America was born because it rejected empire and the imperial idea that chief executives, or kings, could rule by fiat—-or what 17th century English kings called “the prerogative,” which was ultimately rejected by English libertarians (In America today we call “the prerogative” the imperial presidency. We glorify an office that has sometimes produced liars, men who play fast and loose with laws and blunder into needless, ill-moral wars).
The prerogative was an idea that led to one bloody and one peaceful revolution in Britain, which later also rejected or forgot the lessons of limited government. Many Americans have also forgotten—or possibly never learned—that we revolted against the idea that kings, or now presidents, who could arbitrarily take a country to war by virtue of birth or by winning an election every few years (America in 2014 reminds me, in many aspects, of the France under the Second Empire of Louis Napoleon. He was another “democratic” chief executive who blundered into wars, the last of which in 1870 cost him his realm).
Too many Americans forgot our nation originally rejected militarism and empires; that we looked upon them as monsters. I left this book wondering if Gates and his allies in the national security bureaucracies over the numerous administrations he served had ever read Nietzsche.
“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”