Bush and Obama’s secretary of defense had to wage war in Iraq, Afghanistan—and today’s Washington
View Original / 7 Jan 14 / WSJ
All too often during my 4½ years as secretary of defense, when I found myself sitting yet again at that witness table at yet another congressional hearing, I was tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot. The exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else. It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.
Much of my frustration came from the exceptional offense I took at the consistently adversarial, even inquisition-like treatment of executive-branch officials by too many members of Congress across the political spectrum—creating a kangaroo-court environment in hearings, especially when television cameras were present. But my frustration also came from the excruciating difficulty of serving as a wartime defense secretary in today’s Washington. Throughout my tenure at the Pentagon, under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, I was, in personal terms, treated better by the White House, Congress and the press for longer than almost anyone I could remember in a senior U.S. government job. So why did I feel I was constantly at war with everybody? Why was I so often so angry? Why did I so dislike being back in government and in Washington?
It was because, despite everyone being “nice” to me, getting anything consequential done was so damnably difficult—even in the midst of two wars. I did not just have to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq and against al Qaeda; I also had to battle the bureaucratic inertia of the Pentagon, surmount internal conflicts within both administrations, avoid the partisan abyss in Congress, evade the single-minded parochial self-interest of so many members of Congress and resist the magnetic pull exercised by the White House, especially in the Obama administration, to bring everything under its control and micromanagement. Over time, the broad dysfunction of today’s Washington wore me down, especially as I tried to maintain a public posture of nonpartisan calm, reason and conciliation.
I was brought in to help salvage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—both going badly when I replaced Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006. When I was sworn in, my goals for both wars were relatively modest, but they seemed nearly unattainable. In Iraq, I hoped we could stabilize the country so that when U.S. forces departed, the war wouldn’t be viewed as a strategic defeat for the U.S. or a failure with global consequences; in Afghanistan, I sought an Afghan government and army strong enough to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and al Qaeda from returning to use the country again as a launch pad for terror. Fortunately, I believe my minimalist goals were achieved in Iraq and remain within reach in Afghanistan.
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President Bush always detested the notion, but our later challenges in Afghanistan—especially the return of the Taliban in force by the time I reported for duty—were, I believe, significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq. Resources and senior-level attention were diverted from Afghanistan. U.S. goals in Afghanistan—a properly sized, competent Afghan national army and police, a working democracy with at least a minimally effective and less corrupt central government—were embarrassingly ambitious and historically naive compared with the meager human and financial resources committed to the task, at least before 2009.
For his part, President Obama simply wanted to end the “bad” war in Iraq and limit the U.S. role in the “good” war in Afghanistan. His fundamental problem in Afghanistan was that his political and philosophical preferences for winding down the U.S. role conflicted with his own pro-war public rhetoric (especially during the 2008 campaign), the nearly unanimous recommendations of his senior civilian and military advisers at the Departments of State and Defense, and the realities on the ground.
The continuing fight over Afghanistan strategy in the Obama administration led to a helpful, steady narrowing of our objectives and ambitions. Still, I witnessed a good deal of wishful thinking in the Obama administration about how much improvement we might see with enough dialogue with Pakistan and enough civilian assistance to the Afghan government and people. When real improvements in those areas failed to materialize, too many people—especially in the White House—concluded that the president’s entire strategy, including the military component, was a failure and became eager to reverse course.
But if I had learned one useful lesson from Iraq, it was that progress depended on security for much of the population. This was why I could not sign onto Vice President Biden’s preferred strategy of reducing our presence in Afghanistan to rely on counterterrorist strikes from afar: “Whac-A-Mole” hits on Taliban leaders weren’t a long-term strategy. That is why I continue to believe that the troop increase that Obama boldly approved in late 2009 was the right decision—providing sufficient forces to break the stalemate on the ground, rooting the Taliban out of their strongholds while training a much larger and more capable Afghan army.
It is difficult to imagine two more different men than George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Clearly, I had fewer issues with Bush. Partly that is because I worked for him in the last two years of his presidency, when, with the exception of the Iraq surge, nearly all the big national security decisions had been made. He had made his historical bed and would have to lie in it. I don’t recall Bush ever discussing domestic politics—apart from congressional opposition—as a consideration in decisions he made during my time with him (although, in fairness, his sharp-elbowed political gurus were nearly all gone by the time I arrived). By early 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney was the hawkish outlier on the team, with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and me in broad agreement.
With Obama, however, I joined a new, inexperienced president determined to change course—and equally determined from day one to win re-election. Domestic political considerations would therefore be a factor, though I believe never a decisive one, in virtually every major national security problem we tackled. The White House staff—including Chiefs of Staff Rahm Emanuel and then Bill Daley as well as such core political advisers as Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs —would have a role in national security decision making that I had not previously experienced (but which, I’m sure, had precedents).
I never confronted Obama directly over what I (as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and others) saw as his determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations. His White House 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.
I had no problem with the White House driving policy; the bureaucracies at the State and Defense Departments rarely come up with big new ideas, so almost any meaningful change must be driven by the president and his National Security Staff (NSS), led during my tenure under Obama by Gen. James Jones, Thomas Donilon and Denis McDonough. But I believe the major reason the protracted, frustrating Afghanistan policy review held in the fall of 2009 created so much ill will was due to the fact it was forced on an otherwise controlling White House by the theater commander’s unexpected request for a large escalation of American involvement. Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s request surprised the White House (and me) and provoked a debate that the White House didn’t want, especially when it became public. I think Obama and his advisers were incensed that the Department of Defense—specifically the uniformed military—had taken control of the policy process from them and threatened to run away with it.
Most 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, which I routinely resisted. 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. I directed commanders to refer such calls to my office. 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.
Stylistically, Bush and Obama had much more in common than I expected. Both were most comfortable around a coterie of close aides and friends (like most presidents) and largely shunned the Washington social scene. Both, I believe, detested Congress and resented having to deal with it, including members of their own party. They both had the worst of both worlds on the Hill: They were neither particularly liked nor feared. Nor did either work much at establishing close personal relationships with other world leaders. Both presidents, in short, seemed aloof from two constituencies important to their success.
The relationship between senior military leaders and their civilian commander in chief is often tense, and that was certainly my experience under both Bush and Obama. Bush was willing to disagree with his senior military advisers, but he never (to my knowledge) questioned their motives or mistrusted them personally. Obama was respectful of senior officers and always heard them out, but he often disagreed with them and was deeply suspicious of their actions and recommendations. Bush seemed to enjoy the company of the senior military; I think Obama considered time spent with generals and admirals an obligation.
Such difficulties within the executive branch were nothing compared with the pain of dealing with Congress. Congress is best viewed from a distance—the farther the better—because up close, it is truly ugly. 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.
I was more or less continuously outraged by the parochial self-interest of all but a very few members of Congress. Any defense facility or contract in their district or state, no matter how superfluous or wasteful, was sacrosanct. I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department as inefficient and wasteful but fought tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district.
I also bristled at what’s become of congressional hearings, where rude, insulting, belittling, bullying and all too often highly personal attacks on witnesses by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior. Members postured and acted as judge, jury and executioner. It was as though most members were in a permanent state of outrage or suffered from some sort of mental duress that warranted confinement or at least treatment for anger management.
I continue to worry about the incessant scorched-earth battling between Congress and the president (which I saw under both Bush and Obama) but even more about the weakening of the moderate center in Congress. Today, moderation is equated with lacking principles and compromise with “selling out.” Our political system has rarely been so polarized and unable to execute even the basic functions of government.
I found all of this dysfunction particularly troubling because of the enormity of the duties I shouldered. Until becoming secretary of defense, my exposure to war and those who fought it had come from antiseptic offices at the White House and CIA. Serving as secretary of defense made the abstract real, the antiseptic bloody and horrible. I saw up close the cost in lives ruined and lives lost.
Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.
Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.
This is particularly worth remembering as technology changes the face of war. A button is pushed in Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. A bomb destroys the targeted house on the right and leaves the one on the left intact. For too many people—including defense “experts,” members of Congress, executive branch officials and ordinary citizens—war has become a kind of videogame or action movie: bloodless, painless and odorless. But my years at the Pentagon left me even more skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest that war is anything other than tragic, inefficient and uncertain.
The people who understand this best are our men and women in uniform. I will always have a special place in my heart for all who served on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan—most in their 20s, some in their teens. While I was sitting in a hotel restaurant before my confirmation hearings, the mother of two soldiers then in Iraq came up to me and, weeping, said, “For God’s sake, bring them back alive.” I never forgot that—not for one moment.
On each visit to the war zones, as I would go to joint security stations in Baghdad or forward operating bases and combat outposts in Afghanistan, I knew I wasn’t being exposed to the true grim reality of our troops’ lives. And I could only contrast their selfless service and sacrifice with so many self-serving elected and nonelected officials back home.
I came to believe that no one who had actually been in combat could walk away without scars, without some measure of post-traumatic stress. And while those I visited in the hospitals put on a brave front, in my mind’s eye, I could see them lying awake, alone, in the hours before dawn, confronting their pain, broken dreams and shattered lives. I would wake in the night, think back to a wounded soldier or Marine I had seen at Landstuhl, Bethesda or Walter Reed, and in my imagination, I would put myself in his hospital room, and I would hold him to my chest to comfort him. At home, in the night, I silently wept for him. So when a young soldier in Afghanistan asked me once what kept me awake at night, I answered honestly: He did.
—Dr. Gates was the 22nd secretary of defense. This essay is adapted from his latest book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” to be published next Tuesday by Knopf.