Book review

'Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War,' by Robert M. Gates

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''Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War" by Robert M. Gates, who served as secretary of defense under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has two advantages and one disadvantage, compared with other "insider" books in that genre.

One virtue is that Mr. Gates provides a clear chronicle of America's path from 2006 to 2011 through most of two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and other mini- or near-wars, not sparing the guns on who within both administrations was responsible for U.S. actions in the conflicts, including his own role, and admitting mistakes.

By Robert M. Gates.
Alfred A. Knopf ($35).

A second virtue, frequently not found in what are allegedly "tell-all" memoirs, is that he provides sketches of people, using comments from them that are both perspicacious and delicious.

It is probably the case that he does this for three reasons. The first: He clearly believes that the reader needs to know who did what and what these people are like, for understanding, not for salaciousness or to augment book sales, although that has been one result. The second is that is the way he is. He presents himself as basically kind, although not hesitating as a manager to kick ass and take names. The third reason is that Mr. Gates clearly has no desire or intention to return to the American political arena, unlike some of his colleagues who remain intoxicated with public office, even after they have drunk its sometimes bitter wine for years.

Whatever one may think of Mr. Gates' positions on issues, I found only two things wrong with his book. The first is that, although usefully meaty, it is 598 pages long. This is a generic problem: most editors don't have the nerve to tell people of the grandeur of Mr. Gates to trim their books.

The second is a substantive issue, related to the length issue. Mr. Gates makes it clear repeatedly that sending soldiers to war to be killed or maimed began to disturb him increasingly, eating him up inside. There is no doubt of his sincerity in that sentiment, but the question that has to arise is how he could feel that way while also in policy discussions and determinations continuing to favor troop "surges" and maintaining substantial U.S. troop presences in places such as Afghanistan.

Having served 35 years in the U.S. government, I can tell you that the option of saying, "I won't do this; I quit," was always on the table, including for Mr. Gates. His snapshots of people are in focus and sometimes devastating. He doesn't spare the guns on people he doesn't like or doesn't respect.

One of his great lines describes a television camera's red light shining on a member of Congress as having "the effect of a full moon on a werewolf." That one made me howl, as it were.

He found Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton agreeable to work with, although sometimes excessively politicized in her judgments. He wrote that former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun was "probably a little crazy." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Mr. Gates, was glib, arrogant, outlandishly ambitious, and shouldn't be allowed in the White House.

He admired Mr. Bush for decisiveness. Perhaps most important for Americans with three years to go in his presidency, Mr. Gates has mixed views on Mr. Obama. He describes the president favorably as "deliberative." (That's good: He thinks before he acts.) On the other hand, Mr. Obama sometimes took a vote among his subordinates, including junior people, before making a decision. Mr. Gates thinks that the White House double-crossed him a few times, usually on money for the Pentagon. He talks about "broad dysfunction in Washington."

He hands out some very good advice for the country. We should stop pretending we can predict or shape the outcome of regime change. U.S. foreign and national security policy is too militarized. Military procurement should be concentrated on meeting present and future needs, not maintaining past capabilities.

Not only interested parties but also Washington players should read this one. There is a lot to learn from Mr. Gates.

Associate editor Dan Simpson ( is a former U.S. ambassador.

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