Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thoughts on Gates

As Bob Gates readies himself for retirement, you're going to see a whole bunch of valedictory profiles and sum-up pieces in defense media and mainstream outlets alike. One of the first ran today in Politico under the byline of Mike Allen, who is, for me, the best in the political news business. (He's an incredibly curious, interesting, and genuinely nice guy, to boot. I once had a half-hour conversation with him -- at his insistence, honest! -- about what defense blogs he ought to be reading. Alas, it was pre-Ink Spots.)

It's been interesting to track the evolution of both Gates's personal views and of the media's coverage of those views over the course of the last several years. I have no doubt that many journalists will seek to tie a neat little bow on the SECDEF's tenure with lessons learned and best-of/worst-of listicles; even your humble Playbooker fell victim.
As Gates heads out of the nation’s capital for the last time, his reminiscing included several tips for D.C. success:  
*Don’t condescend: “At Texas A&M [G here: whoop! Other brackets in this quote-block are Allen], I would … go in front of the student senate for an hour, hour and a half, and answer questions. And I treated those kids as though they were peers – as though they were state senators. And if they asked a foolish question, or a question that was kind of off the mark in some way, I’d try and figure out what they were getting at, and answer that question respectfully.”  
*Sometimes the press is right: “Giving credit where credit’s due never hurts … The Walter Reed wounded [The Washington Post’s expose on scandalous conditions at the military hospital] is the first example of that. The MRAPs [USA Today coverage of a shortage of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles in Iraq] is a second.”  
*Be blunt: “Even when I was at CIA, I’d go to visit foreign leaders and I’d say, ‘You know, I’m not a diplomat. I’m just an old CIA guy. … I said, ‘If I wanted to be diplomatic, I’d have been a diplomat.’ ”  
*But not too blunt: “When I have my preparatory sessions [before Hill testimony], I answer the questions the way I’d like to answer. And then I get it out of my system.”
If you've paid any attention to what Gates has said and written over the last four and a half years (or really over the last 25 or so), then you can likely add another: tell your boss the truth, even when you know it's not what he wants to hear.

The SECDEF's consistent refrain on this point is why I've found one of the recent staples of the Pentagon rumor mill so troubling and difficult to imagine: that Gen. Cartwright's candidacy for Chairman was submarined by Gates and Mullen over the Marine general's "refusal to be a team player" on Afghan escalation. Here's a bit from an AP interview story on Wednesday:
Gates was adamant that news reporting on the process for selecting a successor to Navy Adm. Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was flawed. He cited specifically reports that Marine Gen. James Cartwright - long considered the leading candidate to replace Mullen when he retires Sept. 30 - was damaged by offering independent advise [sic] to Obama during a decisive review of Afghan war policy in late 2009.  
"I will tell you that some of the negative things that have been reported as influencing the decision - for example the Afghan piece - are completely wrong," he told reporters traveling with him from Hawaii to Singapore, where he will attend an Asia security conference Friday and Saturday.
This made me think back to one of the many times when Gates advised young and aspiring leaders to do exactly what he's accused of punishing Cartwright for: giving an honest assessment o the facts as you see them, then trusting those senior to you to make the correct decision. This article in a 2008 issue of Parameters (pdf), entitled "Reflections on Leadership," was adapted from a speech the SECDEF made at West Point in April of that year.
[I]f as an officer one does not tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then they have done themselves and the institution a disservice. This admonition goes back beyond the roots of our own republic. Sir Francis Bacon was a seventeenth-century jurist and philosopher as well as a confidante of the senior minister of England’s King James. He gave this advice to a protégé looking to follow in his steps at court: “Remember well the great trust you have undertaken; you are as a continual sentinel, always to stand upon your watch to give [the king] true intelligence. If you flatter him, you betray him.”
Does this seem like the sort of man who would pass over an otherwise qualified candidate for being too candid?

What Allen called "the secretary's newsiest, and most introspective, comment" came when Gates' averred that "one of the reasons it's probably time for me to leave is that sometimes too much experience can get in the way, and you can get too cautious... It may be making me more cautious [than] I ought to be." Maybe. But it's also worth noting another excerpt from the same Parameters piece of three years ago before we grant Gates' self-effacing criticism:
That one should only go to war as a last resort has long been a principle of civilized people. We know its horrors and costs. War is, by its nature, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Winston Churchill wrote in January 1942: “Let us learn our lessons. Never, never believe that any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter . . . . Once the signal is given, the statesman is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
Robert Gates has made mistakes during his tenure, just as every Secretary of Defense before him has done and as every successor will do. He promises to recount some of them with the benefit of hindsight in a forthcoming memoir (just not before the next election), and I'm looking forward to that. But I feel confident that Gates's measured blend of decisive action and thoughtful restraint -- Afghanistan 2009 aside, and that is a big one -- will be largely vindicated, and that history will look back on his time in charge of the Pentagon more charitably than will the man himself.

1 comment:

  1. I recently bought From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won The Cold War by a one Robert M. Gates.

    No, I don't spend all my time reading....

    I buy a lot more books than I end up, er, reading.

    How you all doing? Well, I hope. I'm not blogging or commenting as much as I used to (well, according to my standards), because, er, don't want to. It's summer, got stuff to do, it's sunny, got stuff to do, it's summer, and so on....