PHILADELPHIA — It was only once that a flash of anger and annoyance broke through the otherwise well-modulated and pleasant persona that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates presented to the capacity crowd at the National Constitution Center last Friday.
Gates, on a tour to promote his book about his years as defense secretary under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, was asked why the military had resisted building specially hardened troop carriers that, in the few instances where they had been used, had proved so effective in protecting soldiers from the devastating blasts of improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs used throughout Iraq by enemy fighters.
"There was a great deal of reluctance inside the fence [within the bureaucracy] to spend significant sums of money on equipment that might be needed to protect the troops but might be needed only in Iraq and Afghanistan," Gates said.
When Gates learned through a newspaper story that a small cache of hardened vehicles had been deployed in Anbar province in Iraq, and that no American soldier had been killed by a roadside blast as a consequence, he asked the Pentagon to get more.
"No one in the Department of Defense, civilian or military, wanted to buy them, and I said, 'Well, we are just going to do it,' " Gates said, his voice hardening.
Gates' talk was his first stop on a tour to promote Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. He offered a fulsome account of his battles inside the beltway over how to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that weren't going so well when he took office in December 2006.
Much of the initial coverage of the book focused on a handful of quotes Gates attributes to Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that suggested that opposition to Bush's troop surge in Iraq was politically motivated.
But his talk at the center made clear that Gates' main point wasn't to unload a handful of sensational, attention-getting quotes. Rather, what emerges is a scathing critique of bureaucratic sloth, self-interest, and inertia at the Pentagon and of obsessive Capitol Hill politicking, each with its own damaging consequences.
There are some peculiar asides in the book as well. In one instance, he describes a phone call from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in which Reid asks whether the Pentagon might fund research into irritable bowel syndrome - this as Gates is trying to manage two wars.
At the time Gates took over at the Pentagon, there was plenty of evidence the war in Iraq was going badly. More than three years had passed and thousands of American troops had died. American commanders and military leaders had never planned for a long occupation. What's more, as it became clear that a long occupation is exactly what would develop, neither civilian nor Pentagon officials adjusted their plans to the facts on the ground.
Gates praises Bush for taking the first steps toward changing course, pushing for the surge. But he also describes what he calls acts of stupidity by the Pentagon in advance of the invasion that cost many lives. The failure to harness Saddam Hussein's civilian and military bureaucracy for the purpose of maintaining order, in the same way that Allied forces salvaged what they could of the remaining government structure in Germany after the defeat of the Nazis, set the stage for years of chaos.
"Had the Iraqi army not been disbanded, which was one of those catastrophic mistakes . . . you would not have seen the looting and the civil disorder," Gates said. "It was as if no one had ever read a book on denazification, and the fact that if you ran the local power plant [in Nazi Germany], that didn't mean you were Himmler's best friend. So being oblivious to those types of things led to some amazingly stupid decisions."
Gates's non-acerbic personality seemed suited to the hour-long talk at the Constitution Center, which president and CEO Jeffrey Rosen wants to establish as a nationally recognized setting for civilized give-and-take about the nation's founding legal document and issues of governance.
Gates' book heaps praise on both Bush and Obama. Far from being a president prey to Vice President Dick Cheney's svengali-like manipulations, Gates depicts Bush as a tough taskmaster who, after hearing out his staff, seems to have made decisions on his own.
He also expressed admiration for Obama, who he described as a focused and methodical chief executive.
"The personal warmth, confidence, and trust that Obama consistently showed me - often at difficult moments between us - never ceased to surprise," Gates writes.
Yet both presidents and their administrations come in for sharp critiques. Gates says Bush needlessly antagonized other governments with what he described as a strategy of "you are either with us or you are against us." He takes the Obama White House to task for what Gates calls its inordinate focus on politics. Moreover, he describes Obama as a lackluster military leader.
After signing off on the troop surge in Afghanistan, Gates said, Obama did little to rally public opinion or buck up the troops fighting the Taliban.
"The troops need to hear from their commander-in-chief, the person who is sending them in harm's way, that their cause is just and noble . . . ," Gates said at the center. But other than the president's initial announcement, "there wasn't any effort by the White House . . . to tell the American people why this was important."