BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed near-despair over the dysfunctional state of the federal government during a Bellingham City Club lecture Wednesday.
Gates, who served as defense secretary for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said he had behind-the-scenes clashes with both chief executives, but he was more critical of Obama.
Gates, who now lives in Skagit County, noted that he served during the second half of Bush's second term, when re-election was not part of the White House agenda. But he served in the first part of Obama's tenure, and found to his displeasure that re-election was a preoccupation and political considerations were never left out of defense and foreign policy discussions.
Top Obama staffers also tended to meddle in military operations in a way that Gates found inappropriate.
But ultimately, Gates said he had the "highest possible respect" for both presidents. When it came time to make key decisions, and political considerations had been weighed, Obama put the national interest ahead of his own political agenda, in Gates' view.
Reviews of Gates' recently published memoir, "Duty," emphasized his criticism of Obama. But in his Bellingham talk, Gates reserved his harshest words for Congress.
"Over time, the broad dysfunction in Washington wore me down," Gates said. "Every day I was secretary of defense, I was at war with Congress. I was continually outraged by parochial self-interest of members of Congress."
Efforts to streamline and modernize the armed forces were thwarted at every turn by members of Congress defending military bases and defense contractors on their turf, Gates said.
Gates said he prepared five annual budgets for the Defense Department during his tenure from 2006 to 2011, and not one of those budgets made it through Congress before the start of the federal fiscal year, which left defense officials in a financial quandary.
"When the television cameras are turned on in a Congressional hearing, it has the same effect on members of Congress as a full moon has on werewolves," Gates said, adding that Congress members "violated every norm of civil behavior as they postured."
Congress members from both parties are equally guilty, Gates said, calling them "parochial" and "hypocritical ... too often putting self and re-election before country."
Gates did not spare the Defense Department's own bureaucracy, saying he found it far too difficult to get battlefield troops properly supplied and equipped by a system not designed to move at battlefield speed.
"That peacetime, business-as-usual approach cost a lot of lives," he said.
Even before he assumed the defense secretary's job, Gates described himself as weighed down by the knowledge that his decisions were a matter of life and death for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He described sitting by himself in a D.C. restaurant just before his confirmation by Congress. A woman approached him to plead, "I have two sons in Iraq. For God's sake, bring them home alive."
Gates said he repeatedly met with troops and service academy cadets to promise he would do everything in his power for them, during and after their service.
"What I didn't expect is that I would have to fight the Pentagon bureaucracy itself to keep my promise," Gates said.
He was haunted by thoughts of the soldiers he met on the front lines and in the hospitals, and was kept awake nights by "a growing feeling that I was personally responsible for each of them."
Gates wrote personal letters of condolence to the families of each soldier killed in battle, and ordered his staff to provide him with pictures and local news clippings about each one.
"I wanted to know each of them as I wrote those condolence letters," Gates said.
He described his emotions in words that recalled the poetic reminiscences of Walt Whitman, describing his visits to Civil War soldiers' hospitals.
"I would wake in the night and think of a wounded soldier or Marine ... and I would hold him to my chest and comfort him. ... Silently I would weep for him," Gates said.
Gates' long experience in defense and intelligence agencies has taught him to be skeptical of war and "the fire-breathers, almost always civilians" who try to convince presidents and generals that military force is the best way to achieve some foreign policy objective.
"Nearly every war begins with the assumption it will be short," Gates said. "That assumption is nearly always wrong. ... Wars are a lot easier to get into than to get out of. ... American presidents, confronted with a tough problem abroad, are too quick to reach for a gun."
Asked if he saw any hope that the difficulties in Congress could be resolved, Gates replied that things appear to have gotten worse since he left office in 2011. Since then, Congressional deadlocks have led to government shutdown and to a sequestration process that imposes broad spending cuts regardless of government priorities. The result: Programs to help wounded veterans "are being cut at the same rate as the most wasteful defense program there is."
The problem, in Gates' view, is too many members of Congress from safe districts, winning their party primaries with extreme positions that make them ineffective legislators.
American politics have always had a nasty side, Gates said, but until recently leaders were able to sit down and negotiate deals that kept the system working.
"I think these people don't understand how our system of government works," he said. "Compromise has become selling out. ... Maybe we ought to send them all back to retake seventh-grade American history."