Until I read Robert M. Gates's memoir Duty I considered the former secretary of defense one of the quiet heroes in repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT). But Duty reveals something else: a controlling defense secretary working to saddle President Obama with a protracted Pentagon review process that was certain to derail DADT legislative action on Capitol Hill. "I made it clear to the president that any effort to legislate DADT before completion of the review was unacceptable to me," he writes. Harrumph!
Gates' book is getting a lot of attention because he slams Vice President Biden, Congress and its leaders, various White House staffers, even President Obama. But the DADT sections reveal a petulant Gates determined to be the quarterback making the calls on DADT, not the president. His own record reveals that he repeatedly stood in the way of repeal, although he assures us he really did support it. He outlines in detail the obstacles and why the change shouldn't even be attempted during the president's first two years in office.
Are we to believe that Gates, a seasoned bureaucrat, wise in the ways of politics, did not know that most presidents get over 80 percent of their legislative agenda through Congress during their first two years in office, that little happens during the next two? Gates believed, apparently, that only he understood the kind of leadership needed to pull off repeal. The arrogance of this assumption aside, his disconnect with and disdain for Congress and the messy, time-consuming business of legislating, coupled with constant bickering with the White House, became major stumbling blocks in a race against the legislative calendar. If Gates had prevailed and the repeal process had to start all over again in the next Congress, Don't Ask, Don't Tell would still be on the books today.
When the president raised the subject of repeal in his 2010 State of the Union Address, the secretary complains that he and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, had been "blindsided." Gates says the president dropped this "bombshell" without consultation, although the president and his team had been engaging in internal discussions with senior Pentagon leaders, including Gates, for months.
Secretary Gates omits from his book that he actively discouraged repeal legislation from even being introduced in the Senate. The reasons Gates gave to one particular senator for why he should not introduce legislation were the same he gave to the president the year before, in April, 2009: "A high percentage of our men and women came from the South, Midwest and Mountain West. They come from areas with conservative values, and they are, broadly speaking, more religious than many Americans."
In letters and phone calls to House and Senate leaders Secretary Gates repeatedly railed against any legislative action in committee or on the floor. Nearly every time the president and his team engaged with Congress, Gates pushed back. Sometimes he did so with an implied threat. "You're about to blow that up [the Pentagon review]. I cannot predict the results." But the commander in chief pushed right back: "I believe the law [DADT] is wrong, and that the plaintiffs have a stronger case than the government. Two years into my presidency, and there is no action on this. No one can accuse me of being precipitous."
"To be honest, I was skeptical Congress would pass repeal," Gates writes. "While I wanted the [Pentagon] review completed expeditiously, I wanted to avoid roiling the military over a change that might not happen." So, by his own admission, Gates became "a major obstacle" to the Administration's goal, "but [the president] clearly was not prepared to order me to do something I thought was wrong." The president and his White House team were prepared to work around the secretary, however, causing Gates to complain repeatedly, "The politicos at the White House, despite protestations of innocence, continued to negotiate with congressional staffers and outside supporters on the terms of legislation."
The fact is, Gates took 23 months to tell the Senate it was time to finally pass the legislation. "Some might argue," Gates writes, "the transition went so smoothly that our fears and concerns had been greatly overdrawn and that implementation could have taken place much faster." Indeed.
This is not nitpicking. The record matters.
Secretary Gates did not comprehend that to the troops, officially opening up the military to gays and lesbians wasn't a big deal. Years of hard data already showed that. However, it was a big deal to Robert Gates and to some Members of Congress who were oblivious to the changes that had been taking place all around them for over a decade.
Secretary Gates insists, and rightly so, that the Pentagon review helped garner votes in Congress. But he can't bring himself to express joy over the achievement or say well done to the troops. Clearly, the leadership came from the president who pressed ahead as he balanced at once accommodating his secretary and bypassing him. No easy feat. Leadership also came from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid who did the heavy lifting of finding and delivering votes, both of whom Gates repeatedly dismisses, and from several Republican senators and Congressmen, as well as from Admiral Mullen, who spoke to the Senate and to the American people from his heart, with clear conviction. Leadership did not come from the secretary of defense.
By his own account, Gates still believes that only he knew how to repeal DADT. The record -- his own record in his own book -- shows he came awfully close to torpedoing it.
If Mr. Gates was so wrong on this one aspect of events to which I was a witness and participant, can he be so very right on everything else in Duty?