Duty

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.

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Drift

by Rachel Maddow

 

Drift details the slowly and steadily changing relationship between the American people and the wars we fight. Rachel Maddow describes how throughout most of our history the United States has had a small standing Army and has been reluctant to go to war. When we did go to war, the whole nation was involved, and the government was, for the most part, held accountable. Maddow insists that the way the military and the executive are currently structured, American society is almost completely insulated from the wars in which our government engages. DriftShe leads readers down the path from the Abrams Doctrine, in which the nation could not go to war without disrupting the lives of most Americans; through an era of ever-increasing deference to executive authority; to today, when the U.S. has more private contractors in war zones than military personnel, the president can authorize drone strikes with no oversight, and the military budget continues to balloon.

Perhaps you’re thinking that this topic- quite an important one, I’d say- requires a more extensive and scholarly approach than Maddow can offer. Well, that’s certainly fair, but I think that wouldn’t really be her style. If you’ve ever seen her show on MSNBC, you know she pays careful attention to balancing entertainment and information. Drift is something of an extension of that format, and it’s both smart and well-written. I think she’s certainly up to the challenge of a scholarly tome, but chose to write a book that’s accessible to a wider audience.

You might also be wondering whether Maddow is biased, and what that means for her audience. She certainly has a point of view, and most would call her a liberal, but that doesn’t mean shes not fair. In fact, while it’s easy to write her off as a partisan talking head, I find that she doesn’t jump to conclusions lightly, and she works hard to understand rather than demonize opponents.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. I started reading because I’m a fan of Maddow, and didn’t know what to expect beyond a broad-based criticism of our foreign policy. I found that it pretty quickly identified Ronald Reagan as one of the villains in the story of how we’re losing connection to our military. Sure, she basically kicks it all off with Lyndon Johnson, and criticizes all of our presidents up to and including Barack Obama, but you can tell that she’s got a special place in her heart for Reagan. She seems to think of him as an ambitious, shallow, dimwitted opportunist, and does not hold back in her criticism of his administration’s handling of Lebanon, Grenada, and especially the Iran-Contra affair. Ronald ReaganNow, I didn’t grow up during the Reagan era; the only Reagan related event that I can even remember is his death about a decade ago, so it’s difficult for me to judge the merits of his presidency. Maddow, on the other hand, doesn’t hold back.

However we got here, though, Drift makes a pretty compelling argument that the situation has become unacceptable. Maddow clearly cares deeply about our military, and seems personally affronted by the way that presidents have been using military power in our name. Actually, I really liked how personal these issues are to Maddow. She never forgets that we’re a democracy, and that to some extent we have collectively allowed this situation to develop. We elect both the president and the Congress, and should be holding our representatives to a higher standard. By reminding the audience that we are complicit in the ‘unmooring’ of our nation’s military, Maddow’s narrative may serve as a wake-up call that we need to take better care of our democracy. I personally doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon, but we shall see.

I’m also really glad that Maddow offers alternatives, instead of simply complaining. I’m so sick of reading foreign policy criticisms that don’t offer solutions, so much so that I read parts of Drift with trepidation: is she going to go beyond saying that Grenada was a clusterfuck? Where does she think our military should be involved, and who should make those decisions? Maddow isn’t afraid to take a stand on the issues, and to me that’s a breath of fresh air. In fact, Maddow addresses this foreign policy cowardice at points in Drift, noting that oftentimes the legislature is afraid to take a stand on the use of force until they’re sure we’ve been successful- or unsuccessful. This simply puts more authority in the hands of the president, making for a state of perpetual armed conflict. By taking a stand, Maddow signals that in a democracy, we have a duty to make our voices heard, especially where war is concerned.

Rachel Maddow effectively and accessibly makes the case that we’ve given too much war-making power to the executive, but that if we all take our responsibilities more seriously, we just might be able to reverse this trend.

Magic and Mayhem

by Derek Leebaert

 

I’m sorry for taking so long to finish this book. I want to say that I was busy working (20% true), or that I was out of town (also about 20% true), or that I’m Batman (100% true), but the real truth is that I had plenty of time to finish this book, and it just wasn’t on my priority list.

To be completely honest, this isn’t my first crack at Magic and Mayhem, which I received as a gift over a year ago. I got about halfway through it last summer and then left it in my friend’s car in another city, and by the time it was returned I had lost interest. As someone who is very interested in foreign policy, I was shocked, dear readers, to find that this just wasn’t my cup of tea; let me attempt to explain why.

Leebaert is a professor at Georgetown University, which is about as well-known in the foreign affairs and national security fields as any school in the world. He is very clear, however, that he does not consider himself a part of that world, so to speak, and instead uses Magic and Mayhem to indict the entire foreign policy establishment, including universities such as his own. His book addresses six ‘myths,’ essentially misunderstandings of American policy, and primarily uses as his examples the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars.

It may sound like a good structure for a foreign policy academic, but in practice the book becomes a pretty confusing tirade against anything and everything that Leebaert dislikes about the last 60 years of American policy overseas. His chapters often digress into unexplained anecdotes about God knows what, making certain passages completely and utterly unreadable. Granted, a lot of academic scholarship is difficult to read, but it is usually because a certain level of knowledge is assumed of the reader. Magic and Mayhem, by contrast, seems difficult to read because, well, just because.

In that sense it reminds me of some of the stuff I wrote in college, when I would realize that I had a research paper due in a couple days, and I needed a thesis and eight pages. I would just start writing, and keep writing, until I had a mildly coherent product; when I would read it the next day, it kind of made sense, and the conclusion kind of flowed from the evidence, but it was not a great piece of scholarship. Magic and Mayhem likewise gives the impression that the author knew what he was trying to say, that he had a good idea in his head, and that he just stayed up one night, did a quick outline, and wrote his book.

I do agree with many of his points. One of his myths concerns the mystique of American management, which he backs up with the examples of McNamara and Rumsfeld. These people are brought in from the business world in the hopes that they will shake up the bureaucracy and will effectively manage America’s foreign crises; this is essentially the case that is made by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. And Leebaert also effectively makes the point that the American impulse is often to do too much when confronted with ‘emergencies’ that have questionable impact on American security.

What I didn’t really like was that Leebaert has no prescription for what policymakers should actually do. Only in the conclusion does he even approach an answer, but it turns out to be something along these lines: “In most cases do nothing. Unless, of course, something needs to be done.” It reminds me of that scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall when Paul Rudd is teaching Jason Segel how to stand up on the surfboard: “Don’t do anything. Nope, too much, try again. Still too much, try again. Do nothing.” When Segel interprets this literally and just lies down unmoving, Rudd responds, “Well, you need to do more than that, you’re just lying there.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get my point.

Leebaert similarly complains from both sides of almost any policy issue from the post-war era. Generally he criticizes American overreaction, such as escalation in Vietnam, or mission creep in Korea; he believes the wars got out of control when the United States thought that it could do more than Leebaert considers wise. On the other hand, while he generally applauds the handling of the Gulf War, he notes that we encouraged Iraqis to stand up to Saddam Hussein but failed to support them militarily when they did so, kind of contradicting his general advice that less is more.

Long story short, here are the problems I had with Magic and Mayhem. One, the convoluted and confusing structure. Two, the lack of any real policy principles besides “Don’t do what _____ did in _____.” Three, his failure to follow his own advice about magic, myths, and generalizations. He uses anecdote as scientific evidence. He bemoans the inadequacy of our top brass, but then complains about political appointees being able to overrule more experienced generals. And he adopts his own form of magical thinking when imagining that most situations will resolve themselves in favor of long-term stability, without U.S. involvement. There is no question that Leebaert is smart, and right about a great many things, but the book doesn’t serve his arguments well.

Magic and Mayhem might serve as a good guide for those wishing to get into foreign policy literature, but it does not contain anything close to a coherent philosophy or a legitimate case study.