Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



How should presidents decide the fundamental question of when and for what reasons the United States should use its armed forces in combat? That is the question Robert Gates addresses in his remarkable new book "Duty," which should be required reading for any serious student of politics and public administration,

The breakdown in trust between the White House and the U.S. military during the Obama administration is a major theme of this memoir.

Gates has the distinction of being the only defense secretary who remained in that job from one president to his successor, George W. Bush to Barack Obama. He is also the only career civil servant to have held that position. He worked earlier in the Central Intelligence Agency and at the White House under President George H.W. Bush.

In 2006, President George W. Bush persuaded him to return to Washington, replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, and implement Bush's planned military surge in Iraq, in order to avoid a humiliating defeat. Gates regretted leaving his personally rewarding job as president of Texas A&M University, but concluded it was "my duty."

Cabinet secretaries normally resign when a president leaves office. Gates planned to go home to the Seattle area when Bush's term ended, but before the November 2008 election a confidante of Barack Obama approached him with the idea of staying on as defense secretary if Obama was elected. Although it would be a personal sacrifice to spend another two years in Washington, the secretary decided that with U.S. troops still fighting` in two long wars, it was his duty to serve a new president.

The major part of this excellent memoir describes Gates' frustrations in dealing with Obama's White House staff, the Pentagon's bureaucracy, and the committees of Congress. Here is an excerpt that describes the demands on his time:

"All through 2010, at the bottom of the huge funnel pouring problems from Pandora's global trove into Washington, sat just eight of us who, even though served by vast bureaucracies, had to deal with every one of the problems. The challenge for historians and journalists--and memoirists-- is how to convey the crushing effect of dealing daily with multiple problems, pivoting on a dime every few minutes from one issue to another, having to quickly absorb reporting from many sources on each problem, and then making decisions, always with too little time and too much ambiguous information."

Among the many challenges Gates discusses, two of them are particularly interesting for students of foreign policy decision-making: Relations between White House national security staff (NSS) and the Pentagon's top leadership; Dangers inherent when a president commits troops to combat abroad without a clear vision of their mission and the human and financial costs.

The author is harsh in his criticism of Obama's national security staff for dismissing the views of military leaders and attributes this to their lack of military experience, lack of understanding of the armed forces' requirements for defending the country, and for not appreciating the implications of military advice they give the president.

With the exception of General Jim Jones, Obama's first national security adviser, Gates criticizes the NSC staff as dismissive of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's views on avoiding defeat in Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden receives criticism for his strong opposition to a troop surge in Afghanistan that Obama approved in November 2009.

One lesson from the memoir is this: all presidents need to take special care in selecting senior NSS members, finding hose who understand the military implications of their advice to the president and who don't possess an anti-military bias.

A second lesson is the danger presidents face when deciding whether to send troops into combat abroad. Gates is critical of Bush's 2003 decision to pursue open-ended war to remake Iraq without anticipating the huge costs. He laments Obama's decision to greatly increase troop strength in Afghanistan while "not fully believing in their mission." He also argues that these prolonged, costly wars damaged troop morale, sapped public support, and caused confusion among allies about American leadership.

In a final chapter "Reflections," the author is frustrated that "getting anything of consequence done was so damnably difficult" in the midst of two wars. He cites "internal conflicts" within the executive branch, the "partisan abyss in Congress on every issue," and the "magnetic pull" exercised by the White House staff to bring everything "under their control and micromanagement" as serious impediments to effective government.

This book is a troubling, serious reminder to Americans that presidential power to decide where and when to send forces into combat needs to be questioned at length by the media, the public, and congressional leaders. They need to exercise greater influence if this country is to avoid being engulfed in future wars that don't qualify as "vital national interests."

File last modified on Wednesday, 12-FEB-2014 12:04 PM EST

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