01/08/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

The Frustration of Bob Gates

For all the back and forth about contentious revelations in his new memoir, it's important to realize that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is clearly a frustrated guy. After the adventures promoted by his headstrong predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, Gates was brought in by then President George W. Bush to salvage the Iraq and Afghan Wars, presiding over military surges for which success was claimed in both countries. But as those who follow world news know, both successes, to the extent they existed, are coming unraveled, with more powerful underlying dynamics driving the reality on the ground.

Like most everyone writing or talking about this book, I haven't read it. "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War" comes out next week. But I have read the 2700-word essay/extract published in the Wall Street Journal, not to mention coverage. And I read Gates's earlier memoir of his CIA career, "From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War," published in the late '90s.

It's clear that this is a far more contentious, if not angry, work. Gates, the first career Central Intelligence Agency officer to become CIA director (Gates was recruited by CIA as a grad student at Indiana University) before becoming the first secretary of defense to serve successive presidents of opposing parties, dishes and dumps on his erstwhile Obama Administration colleagues, not to mention the president himself, with remarkable dispatch.

Obama was thoughtful but didn't believe in his own policy, his national security staff disrespected and tried to micro-manage the military, Vice President Joe Biden's been wrong on every major geopolitical issue "for four decades," former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately revealed that she opposed the Iraq surge during her 2008 presidential campaign out of concern for then Senator Obama's potential in the campaign kick-off Iowa caucuses, and so on.

He also criticizes a great many other folks, including George W. Bush for becoming distracted by Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan and the mission against Al Qaeda (though I believe he says he's not sure if we should have invaded Iraq), "ideologues" whose first impulse is to call for military intervention, generals and admirals for tending too much to their rice bowls, and Congress and the Washington political culture for, well, being the toxic things they are.

"I was brought in to help salvage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--both going badly when I replaced Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006. When I was sworn in, my goals for both wars were relatively modest, but they seemed nearly unattainable. In Iraq, I hoped we could stabilize the country so that when U.S. forces departed, the war wouldn't be viewed as a strategic defeat for the U.S. or a failure with global consequences; in Afghanistan, I sought an Afghan government and army strong enough to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and al Qaeda from returning to use the country again as a launch pad for terror. Fortunately, I believe my minimalist goals were achieved in Iraq and remain within reach in Afghanistan."

From the Wall Street Journal extract/essay.

I like Gates. He's a professional, a grown-up. He's a thoughtful, reasonable Republican at a time when such are overshadowed by something very different. I agree with him on many things. But his "Mission Impossible" assignment to salvage Iraq and Afghanistan is blinding him.

Not that he's exactly an infallible prognosticator in any event, having gotten the meaning of Mikhail Gorbachev all wrong back when he was supposed to be the expert on the Soviet Union. Gates, whose Georgetown doctorate is in Russian and Soviet history, repeatedly argued that Gorbachev was no reformer at all -- no "Soviet Gary Hart" as he put it at the time, revealing the sophisticated Republican concern that Hart rather than George H.W. Bush would succeed Ronald Reagan as president -- but instead a hardliner in disguise. Fortunately, Reagan, whom Gates briefed, taking advice from that old softie Margaret Thatcher, ended up disagreeing. As did Hart himself, of course, before his frontrunning presidential candidacy was imploded by a sex scandal spoon fed to a few reporters.

Which means that Gates called the turn of the Cold War wrong at the height of the Cold War, not long before the end of the Cold War. Oops.

Back to Iraq.

Whether one views the Iraq surge as a triumph of American arms marking the brilliance of General David Petraeus's counter-insurgency doctrine, or as a temporary buy-out of opportunistic Arab factions enabling the US a grace period in which to execute an elegant bravo oscar maneuver ("bravo oscar" being military slang for bug out), it was never going to alter the underlying reality of the situation. Iraq was always a faux country, a post-colonial geopolitical artifact, product of the sort of post-World War II European great power maneuvering depicted at the end of Lawrence of Arabia. Sectarian strife was only momentarily muffled by the surge, now it's back in full swing with Sunni raging against the Shiite-dominated, increasingly pro-Iranian government.

The Iraq War was precisely the "strategic defeat" that Gates says he succeeded in averting.

Saddam Hussein is one of history's bad guys but he was also an effective dictator who held Iraq together, maintaining it as an powerful counterweight to Iran, thus keeping Tehran's regional ambitions rather neatly in check.

The first President Bush, who made Gates director of the CIA after his reputation was tarnished by close association with leading figures in the Iran/Contra scandal, got it. After Iraq invaded and seized Kuwait, Bush I and company put Saddam back in his box in the first Gulf War. There was no attempt at regime change, even though US and allied forces thoroughly trounced the Iraqi forces, swiftly flushing them from Kuwait.

As for Afghanistan, well, our nation-building efforts in an ancient, mountainous region rife with illiteracy and fundamentalist Islam and ripe with ethnic and factional rivalries have failed. Quelle surprise! Having backpacked through Afghanistan after college, the only thing that shocks me is that so many otherwise seemingly intelligent people would have imagined anything else. Yet Al Qaeda can still be prevented from using Afghanistan as its base, something which has never required the massive effort spun up after Obama took office.

The fact that Gates failed to "salvage" Iraq and Afghanistan shouldn't eat at him. No one was going to do that. As secretary of defense, Gates helped keep the US out of other potentially disastrous conflicts in Syria and Iran and began executing the Asia-Pacific Pivot, in which the US moves away from its fateful post-9/11 adventures in the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to embrace greater engagement with the vast and rising Asia-Pacific region and nascent superpower rival China.

In the meantime, though, he's provided more grist for the political entertainment complex, not to mention a series of revelations that may reverberate in unforeseen ways in the politics of 2016. While he evidently praises Hillary Clinton to the skies while knocking Biden no end, his recounting of his private conversation with Hillary and Obama on the Iraq surge does her no real favors. And his praise may end up a negative as well.

William Bradley Archive