Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Gates' America, no longer pearly

Here is Robert Gates' final word on Congress in his 1996 memoir, From the Shadows:
In the final analysis, though, for all its obstructionism, criticism, and complicating actions, Congress approved the weapons programs, covert actions, arms control agreements, and other measures requested by Presidents to pursue— and control— the struggle with the Soviets. Congressional continuity was, in fact, a reflection of the broad consensus of the American people. And this enduring broad public support was the great underlying strength of the United States in the long struggle with the Soviet Union.

The obstructionism and complicating role of Congress, however, did have a useful function. I sat in the Situation Room in secret meetings for nearly twenty years under five Presidents, and all I can say is that some awfully crazy schemes might well have been approved had everyone present not known and expected hard questions, debate, and criticism from the Hill. And when, on a few occasions, Congress was kept in the dark, and such schemes did proceed, it was nearly always to the lasting regret of the Presidents involved. Working with the Congress was never easy for Presidents, but then, under the Constitution, it wasn’t supposed to be. I saw too many in the White House forget that (p 559).
And here is Robert Gates in an excerpt from his new memoir Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War I, due out Jan. 14:
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. 
Compare, too, Gates' chief complaint about Congress -- and hence U.S. foreign policy --  in 1996:
The first instinct of the Congress through the years was to be critical of any presidential use of force. At the time of the Mayaguez, Desert One, Grenada, Libya, and other military actions, the first reaction was nearly always negative— and then, as in Grenada and Libya (twice), the reaction turned positive when the Congress saw the popularity of the actions among the American people. There was a Vietnam syndrome insofar as the use of force was concerned, but it affected primarily some in the Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Certainly not Presidents  

Another problem with Congress was that, after years of Republican Presidents, the Democratic majority in Congress moved increasingly often to enforce its will and its preferences in foreign policy by enacting laws— laws too often signed by Presidents for various tactical and political reasons. A crude and often shortsighted approach to making foreign policy, such laws not only complicated decision-making and a strategic approach but also contributed to the “criminalizing” of political differences between the Congress and the Executive— not just in Central America but in other areas as well. A statutory approach to making foreign policy was not a healthy development and weakened those in both branches of government seeking bipartisanship.
With his chief complaint about U.S. foreign policy in recent years:
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.
Gates 1996 and Gates 2014 are rather like America 1996 and America 2014. The first, ebullient, a tad triumphal, serenely confident that U.S. policymaking will be driven by countervailing democratic pressures both to express the will of the people and to secure order in the world as well as national security. The second, embittered, exhausted, fearful that the country has lost its capacity for problem-solving.

This tragic turn is rooted in a rather extraordinary personal narrative.  The critique of warmongering in the WSJ excerpt is bookended by Gates' account of his own relationship to war before and deep into his tenure of Secretary of Defense (or, as his title implies by prepositional sleight, Secretary of War).  First, just prior to the passage quoted above, this:
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.
And then, closing the excerpt, this:
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.
That is extraordinary. And personally, I have to feel that the Bush administration's stumbling into putting Gates in charge of Defense and Obama's retaining him indicates that the U.S. retains some capacity for self-correction.  Gates brought a realism and an awareness of the costs of war to his job that served the country well.

Ironically, for all his harsh and headlined criticism of Obama, Gates' perspective on the two wars Obama inherited -- and the one he's avoided to date in Syria -- seems more or less in sync with Obama's:
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.
Even more striking, Bob Woodward, who in a preview-precis of Gates' new book relentlessly overemphasizes the negative in Gates' judgment of Obama, quotes Gates saying with respect to Obama's core choices in Afghanistan, "“I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”

Yet Gates harshly criticizes Obama's mode of making and executing decisions, complaining that the White House and National Security staff micromanaged, mistrusted and undermined the military, and suggesting that politics played an inappropriate role in policymaking. It awaits a read of the whole book to see how Gates weighs Obama's apparently getting much of the policy right with allegedly getting the process wrong.

The Times' Thom Shanker, also afforded a preview, provides a seemingly more balanced account than Woodward of Gates' judgment of Obama.  My impression from Shanker's review is that systemic dysfunction dominates Gates' narrative: the book may portray a collective tragedy, a nation that can no longer govern itself effectively. As Shanker notes, Gates does not spare himself from criticism. There's a dysfunctional Congress, a dysfunctional Pentagon, and two administrations that went severely awry, in his telling, in different ways. Contrast this collective dysfunction with his earlier portrait of five or six administrations that tacked left and right but ultimately hewed to a successful Cold War consensus strategy.

I await the full narrative.  


With Kafka in Obama's war council
Defining democratization down
A Rory Stewart Afghan strategy - on timed release?


  1. Of course, America chose the Sunnis (which is to say the Saudis) as America's ally in the middle east, and the results have been catastrophic, which confirms the Biblical admonition to choose your friends wisely. As for American dysfunction, I refer to Francis Fukuyama's recent essay (The Decay of American Political Institutions), in which Fukuyama concludes: "Many of these problems could be solved if the United States moved to a more unified parliamentary system of government, but so radical a change in the country’s institutional structure is barely conceivable. Americans regard their Constitution as a quasi-religious document. Persuading them to rethink its most basic tenets short of an outright system collapse is highly unlikely. So we have a problem". Yes, we have a problem.

  2. Really great perspective, thank you. Woodward--what a pompous ass. He so transparently puts his own feelings about Obama into Gates' mouth, when its clear that Gates' quotes don't remotely back it up. Its just disgusting.