Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

5 Feb

by Robert M Gates

I don’t normally bother to buy memoirs and autobiographies new, but I heard enough good things about Robert Gates’ book to risk some of my cash. Gates served as George W. Bush’s second Secretary of Defence (replacing Rumsfield) and then stayed in the job for the first two years of Obama’s administration.

Overall, the book was as tedious as most of the other such books, although Gates deserves credit for being more candid than some of the other writers (and for not boring us with his life prior to rejoining the government.) I took about four hours to read it on the train, then left it in Edinburgh.

Other reviewers have said much more about the book, so I’ll settle for noting a few points. If Gates is to be believed (and I certainly have no reason to doubt him);

· The military procurement system in the US is completely FUBAR. Gates talks about the problems in producing new vehicles for the US Army and USMC, forcing newer designs to cope with current threats through despite opposition from bureaucrats focused on long-term threats.

· Linked to this, the level of infighting between government departments is truly staggering. Pentagon and White House officials think nothing of leaking information to swing the debate in their favour or merely to embarrass their superiors.

· The US military (particularly the infantry) is way too small for the tasks facing it now and for the foreseeable future. This has caused a multitude of problems for deployments.

· Veterans care is deeply dysfunctional and most lower-ranking officers and bureaucrats have either been unable or unwilling to do something about the problems. The only way to clear matters was for Gates or other senior officials to get out and push.

· There have been a number of accidents, some of them very dangerous, in the four years Gates served in office. In particular, two nuclear bombs were accidentally moved to an insecure location, while nuclear materials were inadvertently shipped to Taiwan (thus courting a major diplomatic disaster.)

· Congress has become a nightmare for anyone working in senior government positions. Congressmen and Senators take advantage of their positions to interrogate, mock and belittle everyone from Gates himself to military officials. Unsurprisingly, Gates notes that talented young people are shying away from government service.

· The whole DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) concept was screwed up from the start, but the reactions to it by Obama’s administration only made a bad idea far worse.  In particular, they preferred political grandstanding rather than making any attempt to take a reasoned approach to the problem.

· Gates starts out impressed by Obama, but the admiration quickly fades as Obama’s team (noted for being incredibly inexperienced) started trying to grapple with the world’s problems. Hilary Clinton, at least at first, seems to command a similar level of respect, but again the feeling palls. In particular, Gates condemns her for tactical voting during the run-up to the Surge.

· The State Department has real problems in coming to grips with the world outside America’s borders. In particular, the US has had problems dealing with countries such as Iran, Russia and Pakistan, with poor diplomacy in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe ensuring that the US managed to look weak and irresolute, not to mention fatally alienating some allies.

Overall, Duty is an interesting read, full of little nuggets of insight.

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