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Gate's tome is a 'duty' to tell all, but only well after the fact

Although former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's new 640-page tell-all Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War won't hit the bookshelves until next week, excerpts of the book in advance of its release already are making florid headlines:

• From the New York Times: "Bipartisan Critic Turns His Gaze Toward Obama."
• From the Washington Post: "Robert Gates, former defense secretary, offers harsh critique of Obama's leadership in 'Duty'."
• From the Wall Street Journal: "Gates Faults Obama Over Afghanistan."

Although they differ in flavor, the thrust of all these previews is the same. All focus on the tensions between the White House and the defense establishment, including both Gate's own Pentagon and his senior field commanders, that adversely afflicted Afghanistan policy-making virtually from the arrival of the Obama administration.

Although, Gates reportedly writes, "I never doubted Obama's support for the troops," he insists that the president was uncomfortable from the outset with the counter-insurgency strategy he had inherited, and deeply suspicious of his senior military leaders, whom he felt  rightly  were trying to "game" him by generating increased public and political pressure to enlarge America's Afghan troop commitment.

Gates concluded, according to one preview, that "The president doesn't trust his commander"  at the time Gen. David Petraeus  "can't stand" Afghan president Hamid Karzai (good judgment, that), "doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

He's allegedly even more critical of Vice-President Joe Biden, whom, he reportedly writes, "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades," and of White House staffers such as Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes, who he reportedly complains were "out of their depth" in national security matters.

That Mr. Obama was uncomfortable with the way the war in Afghanistan was progressing  or not progressing, as the case might be  isn't news. Neither is Obama's unhappiness with the senior military leaders whom he inherited from his predecessor, one of whom  Gen. Stanley McChrystal  ended up getting himself fired for ignoring, if not actually encouraging, blatantly insubordinate behavior on the part of his staff.

Instead, the trouble with these various previews is that, in their pursuit of grabby headlines, all present a remarkably narrow picture of the book that they purport to describe. For proof, we need look no further than Gates's own prÈcis in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal.

There, he notes that, "Most of my conflicts with the Obama administration during the first two years weren't over policy initiatives from the White House but rather the NSS's micromanagement," which may explain why he contrarily concludes, with respect to decisions on Afghanistan, that "I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions."

Indeed, if his essay fairly reflects his book, Gates reserves his strongest criticism, not for the White House, but instead for Congress, about which he fulminates,"I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent ...micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country." Wow.

Above all, he complains, "Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike  as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran's nuclear sites."

He's right, of course. John McCain and Lindsay Graham take note. But the problem with Gates The Author turns out to be the same as with Gates The Bureaucrat: "Do As I Say, Not As I do" might have been invented to describe him.

Both as CIA Director and later as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates was a good deal better at giving sententious speeches than he was at following his own advice or convincing others to do so. As he himself admits, for example, "I never confronted Obama directly over what I saw as his determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations."

No more was he prepared as CIA director to confront the Reagan White House over the policies that eventually led to the Iran-Contra scandal. Instead, throughout his governmental career, and especially during his service as defense secretary, there runs a strong whiff of Shakespeare's Polonius.

Of course, in that respect, he no more than emulated the presidents whom he served. So if the measure of the servant is his fidelity to the habits of the master, Gates's new book will certainly enhance his already unshakeable stature as one of America's great defense secretaries  a title bestowed, ironically, by the very president whom the book apparently spends a good deal of its 640 pages excoriating.

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