According to the rules of a Washington parlor game, there is only one thing to do upon the release of a memoir by a former high-profile official: search the text for the most salacious, damning, or quotable put-downs of other officials and shout them over Twitter at your political opponents. Thus, if you have heard anything about former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' new memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, you know that he has some sharp criticisms of Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for being partisan and short-sighted. He is especially contemptuous of Congress. In private, he says, members of Congress were “sometimes insightful and intelligent,” but TV cameras “had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf.” Some members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee “were rude, nasty, and stupid.”
But Gates is an even-handed critic, and both sides have plenty of material to work with. President George W. Bush was “much more intellectually curious than his public image,” but “rarely questioned his own thinking.” General David Petraeus was a hero for making the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq work, but Gates recognized that “we would need a strong and seasoned four-star officer” to serve as Petraeus' boss—because, Gates implies, Petraeus was the sort of subordinate that needed supervision. And the person who comes in for the most criticism is Gates himself: the memoir is riddled with admissions of his own failings, a model of self-flagellation.
Gates' criticisms are surprising because, while in office (from December 2006 to July 2011), he cultivated a restrained, non-partisan, cool persona. He won widespread praise for his straight talk—when asked during his confirmation hearings if the United States was winning the war in Iraq, he famously replied, simply, “No sir.” Now he comes clean: it was all an act. He repeatedly admits he was “seething” underneath and talks about “the dramatic contrast between my public respect, bipartisanship, and calm, and my private frustration, disgust, and anger.” He believed, rightly, that a public image of dispassionate objectivity would be a more effective tool for pushing his agenda than giving vent to his actual feelings. But if his earlier dispassion was a service to the nation, one wonders what the legacy of this memoir will be....
The remainder of this book review is available on booksandculture.com.
Paul D. Miller is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corp. He is a former CIA analyst and served from 2007 to 2009 as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the White House's National Security Staff.
This commentary originally appeared in Christianity Today on March 1, 2014. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.