Though it has already been excerpted and sound-bitten to a fare-thee-well, there are several things to remember about “Duty,” the explosive memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates hitting bookstores around the world next week.
First, all memoirs are self-serving. As a book reviewer for several publications, including this newspaper, capital-based memoirs are notorious for settling old scores while justifying the author’s own far-seeing wisdom in every circumstance.
Second, memoirs are a partial historical snapshot — at best. No publisher in his right mind has any conceivable interest in objectivity or the verdict of history.
Controversy generates headlines, and headlines sell books. So any author unwilling to let fly is also unlikely to have his memoir published in the first place.
Those caveats aside, “Duty” is likely to be one of those rare books that define an era.
The reason: Mr. Gates, that famously discreet and consummate public servant for almost a half-century, decided at age 70 to let fly, finally content to cast stones and spread ripples wherever he threw them.
The inevitable effect is to confirm much of the criticism voiced in public and private by the most determined foes of President Obama’s leadership.
The usual network talking heads make much of Mr. Gates’ close working relationship with Mr. Obama, predictably emphasizing personality rather than structure.
By law, custom and practice, though, the president and his defense secretary are joined at the hip, a marriage of civilian control collectively known as the national command authority. That intimate relationship is the linchpin of the chain of command, extending from Washington to joint combatant commands around the globe.
The system’s object: the American soldier, sailor, aviator and Marine in their front-line fighting positions around the world.
Consequently, it is simply appalling when Mr. Gates reports that Mr. Obama was personally solicitous toward senior military commanders, but deeply suspicious of their motivations and agendas.
Excuse me, but if the president didn’t trust those commanders, then why not relieve them?
Oh wait, he did that, didn’t he? It was an ongoing purge of the generals that Stalin might have envied. At least now we know why: a seething stew of personal antipathy, amateurism and micromanagement at the highest level of command.
That overriding reality apparently shaped ambiguities outlined by other authors, but now confirmed by the former secretary of defense. Mr. Gates alleges that the president presided over White House meetings in 2011 in which he disrespected his commanders, doubted his allies and even questioned his own strategy about Afghanistan, where American combat troops had just been recommitted.
According to an account by Bob Woodward in the Jan. 7 edition of The Washington Post, Mr. Gates opined that Mr. Obama “doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
While some of the president’s defenders were quick to question the propriety of including such trusted and sensitive conversations in a published memoir, others wondered why Mr. Gates didn’t simply resign on the spot.
It’s a fair question, but the larger issue is the quality of Mr. Obama’s leadership. Even for a man schooled in community organizing rather military service, how could any president with even a modicum of conscience ask American troops to commit life and limb to a war that their supposed commander in chief rightly regarded as a highly dubious venture?
Reading that highly excerpted passage, I was reminded of a poignant scene from the classic movie “Jaws.” The mother of a young boy killed by the marauding shark confronts the city official who failed to sound the alarm, slapping his face in mute outrage for his dereliction of duty.
If the president really had those misgivings about the wisdom of committing American sons and daughters to combat in a mountainous hellhole half a world away, then what became of those strong convictions he had always assured us he felt?
If these were his true beliefs with regard to Afghanistan in 2011, then did the same apply to Benghazi in 2012 and afterward?
The White House and its usual media suspects have rallied around Obama insiders such as former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who was a “disaster” in the declared opinion of Mr. Gates.
The former defense secretary is equally scathing in criticizing that noted statesman Joseph Biden, glimpsed during the 2012 campaign debates attempting a troubling imitation of a sitting vice president.
Even more worrisome is Mr. Gates’ pithy confirmation of something many of us only suspected. “I felt that agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient.”
From Watergate to the Obama White House, insider accounts are convincing and even invaluable when they tear away the great masks of public deception. Always performing his duty as a good servant to the nation, Robert M. Gates apparently has done just that.
Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.