Waging War

Robert Gates, former defense secretary, told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Thursday night that for his entire 4 1/2 years at the top of the Defense Department he waged war - and not only the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but war with Congress, war with the White House, and war with the Pentagon bureaucracy.He also said that America’s foreign and security policy has become too militarized, and that the use of force has become too easy for presidents.“Not every outrage or crisis should elicit a US military response... We should always be ready to use force, but it should always be the last resort.”

Speaking to a sold-out crowd of 550 Council members and guests, and wearing a neck brace after tripping over a rug on New Year's Day, Gates gave full vent to his feelings of frustration and often anger at the dysfunction in Washington - “because getting anything done in Washington was so damnably difficult, even in the midst of two wars.”

Gates said he didn’t realize he would have to fight the Pentagon bureaucracy to get the troops in the field what they needed, like the bomb-resistant MRAP armored vehicles, and reduced helicopter medevac response times for getting wounded troops to hospital. “I had to change from the military force we had to the military force we needed.”

He also had problems with the White House - some with the Bush White House, but more with the Obama White House, where he served at the beginning of an administration that was still sorting out military policy.President Obama’s staff’s “intrusiveness, micromanagement and meddling in military matters drove me crazy.”

But his main target of criticism was the Congress, which he derided as “uncivil, incompetent, micromanaging, egotistical, parochial, hypocritical, and too ready to put self over country... Every day I was Secretary I was at war with Congress.”He said the inability of Congress to fulfill its duty and appropriate money on time “was a dereliction of duty”, and he was constantly offended by the adversarial treatment of members of the Executive by congress members.“When the TV cameras are turned on it has the same effect over Congress as a full moon on werewolves.” He decried the level of partisanship, and said that he himself strove to maintain a non-partisan stance, while “for four and a half years the clenched teeth behind my smile remained hidden to Congress.”

The reason that Gates wrote his book now - Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War- and did not wait until Obama left office in 2017, was, he said, because the main issues are important today - Syria, Iran, the Middle East, China/Japan, how much defense do we need? Is Defense reform possible?“Figuring out how to make DC work is not a question for the future; it is a question for now.”

He said that both Presidents Bush and Obama treated him respectfully and graciously, even though he had disagreements with them both.“I liked and respected both men - I witnessed both of these presidents make decisions for the best interests of the country, regardless of the political consequences, and that earned my highest respect.”But he said the difference between the two presidents was that Bush supported the troops and also their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.Obama supported the troops as well, but he opposed their mission in Iraq and came to be skeptical about Afghanistan too.Obama was too “detached on Afghanistan, failing to tell the troops why their sacrifice was important.I told (chief of staff) Rahm Emmanuel that Obama needed to take ownership of the war in Afghanistan, especially since he added 60,000 troops - but to no avail.”

Gates also paid moving tribute to the troops in uniform, describing his feelings for them as nothing short of ‘love’.“I came to regard them as if they were my own sons and daughters.”He insisted on getting a photo and some home town news about every service member who was killed, so that he knew something about each one when he wrote their condolence letters by hand to their next of kin.“It came to the point where I could barely speak about them without choking up.My desire to protect them was clouding my judgment - and that contributed to my decision to step down.”Gates said he became convinced that nobody in combat could walk away without scars and some form of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).“My answer to a young soldier’s question in Afghanistan about what kept me awake at night? - he did.”

Asked about what he would change in Washington if he could, Gates said he would like to change the way politicians treat each other - they should be more civil, listen to each other and learn from each other not demonize each other.“You need to get out of the paradigm where the other person is the enemy and there is no room for compromise.”Even the US Constitution is full of compromises.“Those who won’t compromise need to go back and retake 7th grade American history.”