The Gates Book: Key Takeaways

The SecDef's withering takedown of Washington

Paul Brandus

Washington is consumed today by Robert Gates’s score-settling new book Duties: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. It’s a withering takedown of just about everyone in official Washington. The lion’s share of his contempt is aimed at Congress, but Gates takes plenty of jabs at Vice-President Biden and the president himself.


As Bob Woodward of the Washington Post notes: "It is rare for a former cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president."


It’s important to note at this point that Gates is regarded as a well-respected moderate who served five presidents and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama; it’s a background that adds tremendous credibility and gravitas to his comments, no matter how anyone else tries to spin it.


Here are the top takeaways from Duties:


1. Contempt for Congress: “I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.” Gates said he fantasized about storming out of hearings and quitting. “There is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that.”


2. Contempt for Biden:
The Vice President, though a “man of integrity…has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates writes. He offers specifics: Biden’s idea of a limited strategy was akin to “Whac-A-Mole hits on Taliban leaders,” which “weren’t a long term strategy.”


3. Obama and Clinton opposed the Iraq surge for political reasons: Ahead of the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination, both Obama and Hillary Clinton – then Senators from Illinois and New York – expressed opposition to President Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq – which today is credited with helping to tamp down civil war (which is now incidentally, occurring). It’s not the opposition per se that bugs Gates, but the fact that they did so for purely political reasons:


Once Obama was president and Clintin Secretary of State, Gates notes that "Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary," he writes. "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."


4. Most controlling White House since Nixon: Gates says the Obama White House and its national security team “was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost” four decades ago.  


But since Nixon and Kissinger were regarded as a successful foreign policy team – reaching out to China, beginning the process of détente with the Soviet Union and winding down the Vietnam War – it’s not control per se that seems to bug Gates. It was the condescending, arrogant manner in which the Obama team operated: “Much of my conflicts with the Obama administration during the first two years weren’t over policy initiatives from the White House but rather the NSS’s micromanagement and operational meddling,” he writes. “For an NSS staff member to call a four-star combatant commander or field commander would have been unthinkable when I worked at the White House – and probably cause for dismissal. It became routine under Obama.”


5. Hogging all the Credit: “The controlling nature of the Obama White House, and its determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work, offended Secretary Clinton as much as it did me,” Gates writes. He mentions one specific incident, when  Biden and Thomas Donilon, then deputy national security adviser, tried to pass orders to him on behalf of the president. “The last time I checked, neither of you are in the chain of command,” Gates says he told the two men. Gates told them he took orders only from the president.


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