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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review of "Duty" by Robert Gates

I just finished reading "Duty," a 600-page mataburros (donkey-kller, as the Mexicans call a big doorstop of a book).  Gates is something of a hero to me, being the only analyst ever to head the intelligence community and a William and Mary graduate to boot.  He was one of the best senior executives in government service since World War II.

A few highlights of the book:
  • Makes the important point how 9/11 psychologically impacted the Bush administration.  A general feeling that they had let down the country and they desperately wanted to prevent another attack.  He noted the sense of "fear and urgency."  The decision to use waterboarding--see Bush's approval of this in "Decision Points"--to interrogate the most culpable (e.g., KSM) of the terrorists should be seen in this light.  In tne end, our values won out, as this method of interrogation was shut down pretty early on in GWOT.
  • How the JCS was essentially defeatist about Iraq by the time he took over as Secdef in 2006.  The leadership had to change.  He considers Bush's decision to go ahead with the 30,000-man surge in Iraq as one of the most courageous political decisions he had witnessed in public service.
  • We contributed to making the level of distrust between Washington and Kabul by essentially trying to oust Karzai in an electoral coup d'etat.
  • He attributes his greatest accomplishments to getting more MRAP (anti-mine) vehicles to Iraq and getting more ISR to Afghanistan, often having to drag the Pentagon bureaucracy kicking and screaming. 
  • Some of the smaller details of the book stuck with me the longest:  how in denial the Army medical bureaucracy was about the conditions at Walter Reed Hospital...How the remains of dead servicemen were being poorly handled at Dover Air Force base...how the Air Force sent nuclear weapons flying across country without knowing it.  
  • President Bush 43 comes off well in the book.   President Obama is viewed more critically, but he gets high praise from Gates for his graciousness and his support for the Afghanistan surge.  Obama did not however support our policy in Afghanistan despite calling this "the good war" during his presidential campaign.  By pointing out this fact obvious to everyone,  Gates has been attacked by Democrats as "betraying" Obama.
  • Gates lambasts Congress on every occasion for being meanspirited and lacking any sense of the public good.  That Congress fails in its basic function of appropriating funds infuriates Gates.
  • He offers a revealing account of his devil's advocacy against the raid on Osama Bin Laden.  It was interesting seeing his reasoning.
Last note:  You'll be disappointed in reading this book if you are looking for big insights on the future of US foreign policy or grand strategy.  A conventional thinker, Gates does not dwell much on the rightness or wrongness of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He accepts the logic that we must prevent terrorist "safe havens,"  even though our main threat now is home-grown terrorism.  He endorses the view the world has become more dangerous, despite having spent his formative years in public life during the height of the Cold War.
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