by Robert M. Gates


Yes, the title reminds you of poo. Moving on.

Duty is Gates’ memoir about his time serving as Secretary of Defense, under Presidents Bush (fils) and Obama. Appointed by the former to fix the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was asked to stay on by the latter, presumably to add a bipartisan flavor to Obama’s cabinet and Department of Defense. Duty describes Gates’ time at the Pentagon and provides his perspective on each administration.

If you’ve read about the book, you’ve probably heard the gossipy accounts of the successive administrations: who got along with whom, etc. I think one question everyone wanted answered was, “Who do you think made better decisions as President?” DutyWell, Gates knows enough to steer clear of that one, though he’s less comfortable with the Obama team than he is around Republicans or the military. On the other hand, he shit-talks Vice Presidents Dick Cheney and Joe Biden about equally, thinking that both were too political and too vocal in foreign policy meetings, while just about professing his undying love for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. So he at least keeps an open mind.

But most of what Gates talks about is actually bureaucratic intransigence within Defense. His biggest problem at the Pentagon was that most of the top brass were focused on potential future wars, to the point of obsession. While this focus on upcoming problems and conflicts isn’t necessarily a bad thing- I’m glad that they think about tomorrow- Gates found that this attention came at the expense of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he felt he was brought in to fix. His mandate, as he saw it, was to realign the massive bureaucracy with the goal of winning our current wars. I find it hard to believe that the military paid as little attention to the wars it was fighting as Gates indicates, but he’s quite proud of his accomplishments in this area, especially the accelerated procurement of the life-saving MRAP, which I’ll get into in just a minute.

Though his book was interesting, by and large, I would get kind of annoyed when I felt that Gates was using his bipartisan label to elevate himself above decisions he didn’t like. In addition to disagreeing with and arguing against these decisions on their merits- which, to his credit, he does- he tends to adopt the posture of a neutral observer. The implication of this is that if you disagree with him, you’re behaving like a partisan hack. Gates consistently tells us that everything he did, by contrast, was for our country and our troops on the front line. While I don’t doubt that he’s telling the truth, I can see how it would get frustrating dealing with a man who believes his motives to be purer than anyone else’s in the room.

A couple months ago, while I was reading DutyNew York magazine came out with a cover story about race in the Obama era. In case you missed it, Jonathon Chait basically said, “Sure, Republican policies and politics can be racist, but Democrats are just as bad when they call Republicans racist. Everyone’s at fault.” What bothered me about this line of reasoning was best articulated by Elias Isquith on Salon as “the view from nowhere.” Essentially, Chait needs to retain his credibility as a neutral journalist, meaning that he can neither fully endorse either side’s actions or fully impugn either side’s motives. If he did so, he would immediately cease to be ‘neutral.’ The result? A piece pretty much devoid of actual content, all in the name of fairness.

I don’t think it would be fair to put Gates on the same level as Chait, but his tone sometimes bothered me. There are a few people in government that he would respect, even when he disagreed with them, but there were many whom he would often accuse of being hacks. The Obama White House, and particularly Joe Biden, are singled out as making foreign policy decisions based almost purely on politics. This is an especially strange charge given that during the Bush Administration, by Gates’ own account, national politics had a very strong influence on war policy in Iraq. Motives are not called into question in this case, but because Gates has taken the stance of an impartial observer, we’re supposed to trust that he knows the difference between a ‘political decision’ and an ‘informed’ decision.

Similarly, Gates likes to claim that he’s not a politician, and moreover that he has weak political instincts. A closer look reveals that the opposite is the case. In the aforementioned example of Iraq, Secretary Gates, the civilian team at the Pentagon, the military, and the White House were very adept at setting timetables for the surge, knowing how far away a deadline would have to be to avoid immediate accountability, while dodging a situation in which they could be criticized for setting a ridiculously distant (and therefore nearly irrelevant) date. This is not me calling them out for trying to outmaneuver Congress and the nation without us noticing. Go read the book. Gates is pretty open about politics driving aspects of decision-making in his time at Defense before the 2008 election.

A more subtle example of Gates’ political instincts is the MRAP program, which is credited with saving many, many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates writes that he had to fight the Pentagon for the procurement of these vehicles, which were better-suited than any other to withstand IEDs, and therefore protected soldiers on patrol. If his account is accurate, this means that a) top officials at the Pentagon didn’t place the highest priority on protecting their soldiers, at least not to the extent that they would go around the normal procurement process to do so, and b) the Pentagon and the White House failed to recognize that American casualties were driving opposition to the war in Iraq. I think it’s fair to say that American opposition to wars largely develops when we see our fellow Americans fighting and dying for reasons we don’t understand. A good way to keep opposition from spiraling out of control, therefore, would be to place the highest priority on protecting American lives. Hence, the MRAP. If Gates was as integral to the MRAP procurement as he tells us, either the Bush Administration and the military were incredibly obtuse about the impact of casualties on American war fatigue, or Gates is much more politically savvy than he lets on.

I feel a little bit bad, because it must seem like I’m criticizing a high-level government official for acting like a politician. I often find myself in the position of defending politicians, even those that I disagree with, when people write them off as self-interested blowhards. I think it’s rare that anyone gets into public service, politics included, without a real desire to see people’s lives improve. From Bob Gates to George Bush to Barack Obama to Stanley McChrystal, I don’t think there’s anyone in Duty that I wouldn’t assume to be a patriot, and it saddens me that Gates is so adamant about certain individuals not always having the public interest at heart. But of course, it’s his book, and he’s entitled to his opinions. It’s likely that Gates is just trying to be honest about his experiences, and I can’t fault him for that.

I’ve kind of gotten bogged down in the political crap, which I really tried not to do, but it is simply amazing to me how openly Gates disdains political theater while just as openly engaging in it. Regardless, most of the book isn’t really about that. Gates talks about the Defense budget, our relationships with Russia and China, changes in military culture (including the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), and other challenges that we’re facing or that we will face in the near future. He makes his opinions known, and tells it like he sees it. I’m guessing that Gates’ tenure at the Pentagon will turn out to be an important one, and it’s pretty interesting watching the changes at the Pentagon from the perspective of a man who clearly wasn’t always comfortable with the way things went down.

Duty is a fascinating memoir for what Gates says- the great anecdotes from his relationship with Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc- as well as what he doesn’t say. There’s probably no better vantage point on the foreign policy pivot between the Bush and Obama Administrations.


The Oath

by Jeffrey Toobin


A few years back I read The Nine, an interesting book about the Supreme Court and its nine members. Jeff Toobin went into exceptional detail about what made each Justice tick and how that influenced the Court’s rulings. But time marches on, and four of the Supreme Court Justices highlighted in The Nine have died or retired, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist. So we’ve got a new Chief Justice (John Roberts, nominated by Bush to replace Rehnquist in 2005) and a new President (Barack Obama, whom you may have noticed succeeded Bush in 2009). Each has his own ideas about the role of the judiciary in American democracy. The fundamental difference, according to Toobin, is that while Roberts believes that judges can and often should be agents of change in our society, Obama initially believed that elections and lawmaking must be primary in our system.The Oath

Shocking, right? The judge thinks judges matter, and the politician thinks politicians matter. According to Toobin, however, Obama’s disdain for the judicial process was a self-inflicted and grievous wound on his own Administration.

For me, at least, how I feel about the Supreme Court pretty much depends on what decisions they’ve handed down recently. Striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act? Yaaaaaaaay. Striking down part of the Voting Rights Act? Boooooooo. Depending on your own political persuasion, you might disagree with me on one or both of those. I’m pretty sure there’s nobody out there who could agree with every single ruling the Court makes in a year; it’s always gonna be a mixed bag. But if you look carefully, you can see which way the Court is trending, and Roberts has taken the Court in a decidedly conservative direction.

Toobin argues that stare decisis, the judicial deference to precedent, has been taking a major hit on the Supreme Court lately. Though Roberts is no originalist, unlike Clarence Thomas, his Court seems to be ready to throw out precedent on issue after issue, from affirmative action to gun control to campaign finance. This means the Supreme Court has become almost a source of new law rather than an impartial arbiter of justice, which is ironic for two reasons. First, conservatives are generally more likely to decry judicial activism, though they would argue that the real judicial activism happened decades ago and that the Roberts Court is only undoing that damage. Second, John Roberts himself made it clear during his confirmation hearings that he would prioritize moderation, unanimity, and precedent. His Court has done anything but, meaning that while President Obama is spending his time and energy trying to pass new legislation, the Court is quickly, quietly, and unilaterally effecting change in American society.

So that’s kind of the gist of The Oath. Unfortunately, I didn’t really catch on to Toobin’s thesis until I was almost done with the book. John Roberts and Barack ObamaWhile he lays out the fundamental differences and similarities between Obama and Roberts, he kind of splits his time between two stories. One story is about the Obama Administration’s interactions with the courts- filling vacancies, defending federal law- while the other traces the history of the Court’s radical conservative majority. Both stories are interesting, but they don’t always have that much to do with one another. The introduction, detailing the causes and ramifications of President Obama’s botched inaugural oath, was fascinating. It did not, however, say all that much about the Chief Justice’s or the President’s interpretation of the Constitution. Likewise, the conclusion of the book centered on the Administration’s successful defense of the Affordable Care Act, with Roberts writing for the majority that voted to uphold the law. This conclusion doesn’t exactly square with Toobin’s view that the Court is increasingly conservative and political.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually really liked the book. It just seemed to me that Toobin was trying too hard to find a singular narrative to tie everything together. It felt like he was searching for a ‘beginning’ and an ‘end’ to the story. I applaud him for the effort, but he knows that the whole story hasn’t been written yet, and while this is a great start, it’s naturally going to be incomplete. This need for a unifying theme seems especially odd considering that the book is largely composed of several short histories that don’t really fit in with a larger narrative. These vignettes are interesting on its own merits, and Toobin absolutely didn’t need to shoehorn in a completed story structure. But like I said, I give him credit for trying.

The complete history of the Obama Administration’s relationship with the Roberts Court is still at least a few years down the line. Until then, The Oath is detailed, informative, and entertaining, and it’s a great step towards understanding how our executive and judicial branches interact today.

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks

by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein


“One of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier–ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

If you could read that sentence without getting mad, you might consider hearing what Mann and Ornstein have to say. Otherwise, this book will probably just anger you. In other words, Spoiler Alert: the Republicans take a lot of shit in this one.

The basic argument here is that our political process is incredibly dysfunctional; this can be seen primarily in the way Congress handles (or is unable to handle) its business. The authors blame two factors, one of which is the disconnect between our political system and our political parties; the Democratic and Republican parties are ideologically unified but are forced to govern under a system that gives great power to the minority. The other is the aforementioned polarization, labelled ‘asymmetric polarization’ by those who believe that the Republican Party has ideologically consolidated far from the mainstream.

The first example given is the debt ceiling debate, in which what had been a formality suddenly became a crisis that downgraded our nation’s credit and nearly mandated a default on our sovereign debt. The Republicans in Congress would not agree to raise the debt limit unless serious budget concessions were made by the Obama Administration. It's Even Worse Than It LooksThis bit of hostage taking nearly resulted in disaster, but the Republicans didn’t seem ashamed. On the contrary, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell stated after the crisis, “We’ll be doing it all over.” If you’ve been paying attention over the last month or so, yes, it’s happening again.

The authors also explore the filibuster, which has been abused by both parties when they have been in minorities in the Senate. The filibuster developed over the years as a tool for members of the minority to voice their vehement objection to a bill, as the southern Dixiecrats used it trying to stall civil rights legislation in the 1960’s. By now the filibuster has become almost synonymous with the Senate itself in the minds of voters, though Mann and Ornstein accurately point out that the filibuster is neither in the Constitution nor a permanent rule of the Senate. The use of the filibuster has degraded to the point that a single member can hold up legislation or appointments for days, shutting down the business of the Senate and often forcing the Majority Leader to simply give up on certain items of the Senate’s agenda.

I have to say, as a Democrat, it’s not hard for me to see the Republicans as the party of obstruction when, right now, they’re preparing for another debt ceiling negotiation that will inevitably become a debt ceiling crisis. Whatever sympathy I had for John Boehner as one of the weakest Speakers of the House in recent history evaporates when he laments that President Obama wants to “annihilate the Republican Party,” seemingly forgetting that Majority Leader McConnell had previously said the Republicans’ top priority was to make Obama a one-term president. That being said, the Republicans didn’t invent obstruction, and blaming them for our system’s inadequacies, while satisfying, is kind of a waste of time.

But regardless of who’s at fault, Mann and Ornstein paint a pretty bleak picture. Most of the time, any lament to the intractability of our democratic process comes with a ray of sunshine; there’s really none to be found in this book. Legislative remedies are offered, but given the book’s insistence that our legislative process has been corrupted, these seem like a long shot at best. The authors dismiss the possibility that our process will right itself, as many optimists believe.

There are no quick fixes, but the authors do outline some long-term goals for reform, and it’s not the Republican plan to divide up electoral votes (of large blue states) by Congressional district. (It’s bad enough that the Republicans are behaving like the sorest losers in history, adapting to a loss not by trying to get better but by changing the rules so that they’re more likely to win, as if democracy was some perverse electoral version of Calvinball. But they’re trying to do it in Virginia, attempting to blatantly disenfranchise the clear majority in my state that had the audacity to twice vote for Barack Obama after voting Republican for forty years. It really doesn’t incline me towards thinking that Republicans have anything in their plans that would make me, y’know, actually want to vote for them.)

It's much funnier when it's not about your civil rights

It’s much funnier when it’s not about your civil rights

Back to the not-so-quick fixes. According to the authors, with me in agreement, we need campaign finance reform. Money isn’t speech, and the legal fiction that allows the wealthy and powerful to divert huge sums of money towards getting their candidates elected boggles the mind. And yes, instant runoff voting will help elect a candidate that the majority of a district’s voters will actually be able to support while allowing voters to vote their conscience. The authors also reiterate that the Senate needs to be seriously reformed, as Majority Leader Harry Reid nearly accomplished last month.

The most interesting fix I read about was mandatory voting, to which many Americans, myself included, have an almost visceral revulsion. We don’t like being told that anything is mandatory. However, Mann and Ornstein make the argument that the most informed voters, the most likely voters, and the most partisan voters are by and large the same group. This means that Democratic candidates only need to play to Democratic voters, and ditto for the Republicans, since those in the middle are more difficult to court and are unlikely to vote anyway. If we had mandatory voting, with a nominal fine, candidates might find that the electorate would become significantly more moderate overnight.

Anyway, It’s Even Worse is bleak about our government, to the point of being upsetting, but its second half offers real goals for the future. Remember, the GOP kind of takes a beating in these pages. Republicans, you’ve been warned.