Secretary Robert Gates: On Duty, Service, and War

The Honorable Robert M. Gates, Former US Secretary of Defense. Introduced by David Hiller.

Secretary Robert Gates On Duty, Service, and War

Event Summary by Richard C. Longworth

With pathos, humor, and rage, Robert M. Gates told a Chicago Council audience Tuesday how his sense of duty to American troops led him to serve two presidents as secretary of defense and how his “private frustration, anger, and disgust” with a dysfunctional Washington eventually drove him out.

Despite the subzero temperatures, a crowd of 1,500 came to hear Gates, who served in eight administrations, tell how Washington has declined since his arrival in 1966 into a morass of partisan politics and bureaucratic infighting that damages the national interest and shames the sacrifice of the troops.

It’s a story he tells in his new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. This “war,” he said, was fought as much in Washington–“a place where so many people are lost in thought because it’s such unfamiliar territory–as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates was defense secretary in the last two years of the George W. Bush administration and then was asked to stay on by President Obama. Both presidents treated him “with generosity, trust, and confidence,” he said. Congress was “respectful,” the media were “positive,” and he liked the people he worked with.

“So why did I feel I was so constantly at war?” he said. “Why was I so angry? Because getting anything done in Washington is so damnably difficult.”

“Every day, I was at war with Congress,” Gates said. He called the legislative branch “inquisitional, uncivil, incompetent, micromanaging, parochial, egotistical, thin-skinned,” filled with politicians who “put reelection before the national interest” and who prize sound bites over progress.

“Television cameras have the same effect on members of Congress that a full moon has on werewolves,” he said.

Gates expressed respect for both Bush and Obama, but had more disagreements with Obama, both because Obama wanted to cut defense spending and because he “seemed detached from the war in Afghanistan” and “failed to tell the troops why their sacrifice was necessary. This lack of passion troubled me.”

The White House and National Security Council staffs were a bigger problem, Gates said. Both exerted a “magnetic pull” that made every decision a battle. The White House “controlled every issue of national security. The staff’s intrusiveness and meddling…was unprecedented and drove me crazy.”

Gates said he brought his complaints to Rahm Emanuel, then Obama’s chief of staff, now Chicago’s mayor. He implied that Emanuel gave him no help.

Part of his “bureaucratic war,” Gates said, “was with the military itself...I didn’t expect that I’d have to fight the Pentagon bureaucracy itself to fulfill my pledge [to the troops], to meet their needs.”

On the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars, Gates acknowledged that “initial victories were squandered by mistakes,” both on the scene and back in Washington. But on the nation’s debt to the frontline troops, he was unequivocal, even emotional.

“The troops were the reason I took the job,” he said, “and the troops were the reason I stayed” in the Obama administration. “I developed a deep emotional attachment to the troops. My theme is love–there’s no other word for it–that I came to feel for these troops. Toward the end of my time in office, I could barely speak to them or about them without choking up.

“All this took an emotional toll on me,” he said. Visiting wounded troops in hospitals or writing condolence letters left him drained, he said. “Silently, at night, at home, I wept for them.”

Gates spoke in a neck brace he has had to wear since breaking a vertebra in a fall at his Washington state home.

He has been criticized for writing a kiss-and-tell memoir while the administration he served is still in office. He explained that he has useful advice on major issues, such as the Middle East, Iran, relations with China, and the like–not least, whether a polarized Congress makes a coherent national security policy impossible.

The former defense secretary urged more government spending not on arms but on diplomacy, development aid, and communication of America’s goals. American presidents in general “are too often ready to reach for a gun,” he said. “Not every crisis should elicit a military response.”

Gates criticized the doctrine of preventive war, used by the Bush administration to go into Iraq. But he said the Iraqi war did create a stability which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has wasted.

“We achieved our mission,” he said. “We handed them a future. It’s up to them to keep it.”

Gates called Iran “the toughest problem since I entered government 50 years ago.”

If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will destabilize the entire region, he said. But any attack to take out these weapons will only delay Iran’s progress by three or four years and lead to retaliation, including terrorism.

“Everything except a good negotiated outcome is terrible to contemplate,” he said.

Richard C. Longworth is a senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Read more of his program summaries and recent publications or follow his blog.

Speaker Bio


Edward Luce, “Duty, By Robert Gates,” Financial Times, 01/10/14  

Dan Zak, “Robert Gates: A Man Still at War,” Washington Post, 01/12/14

The Uses of Force,” Economist, 11/23/2013 

Additional Information

His latest book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, will be available for purchase and signing following the program.

Join the conversation with @ChicagoCouncil using #GatesonDuty.