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OPINION

Robert Gates, and why Defense secretaries are grumpy

In his memoir, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reveals how unhappy he was to be leading the Pentagon in the Bush and Obama administrations. He was mad at Congress, furious with the White House and outraged by Pentagon bureaucrats. In fact, some days he was so angry he wasn’t sure he could take it anymore.

“All too often during my 4½ years as secretary of Defense, when I found myself sitting yet again at that witness table at yet another congressional hearing, I was tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot,” Gates writes in one of the excerpts from his book that was made public before the book’s release.

On another occasion, Gates was incensed when Obama aide Thomas E. Donilon questioned the competence of Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, who was leading the U.S. effort to provide relief to victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. “My initial instinct was to storm out, telling the president on the way that he didn’t need two secretaries of Defense,” he says. “It took every bit of my self-discipline to stay seated on the sofa.”

Grumpiness, and worse, is not unusual in the office of the secretary of Defense. The first man to serve in the position after it was created after World War II, James Forrestal, worked tirelessly trying to impose civilian control on the military and manage his relations with President Harry Truman. After being asked to resign by Truman and receiving a diagnosis of severe depression, Forrestal leapt to his death from the window of a military hospital in Bethesda, Md.

Just what is it that makes being secretary of Defense so challenging and, well, infuriating? It’s a problem of two empires. One of them is an expansive overseas American military presence, which gives the United States an interest in developments in almost every country in the world — and a need to manage them. The second is the vast national security bureaucracy, in the Pentagon itself and elsewhere in government.

Henry Kissinger once observed that “no country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at every moment of time.” But the secretary of Defense, who isn’t even a country (although he does have his own ZIP code), has to try. It’s true that he has a huge civilian and military staff working for him, but as the man who is, in effect, deputy commander in chief, he has ultimate responsibility for everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the possibility of conflict breaking out after an accidental naval clash in the South China Sea or the Arabian Gulf. That is an immense amount of pressure.

And the job isn’t necessarily always made easier by the permanent Pentagon bureaucracy, the uniformed military or the rest of the employees in the national security state. The huge stakes in military operations invite interference and oversight by the White House staff, whose boss — the president — often has other things on his mind. The National Security Council has grown over the years into a government within a government, whose staffers will intrude in the smallest operational matter if they think it serves the president’s best interests.

This can be infuriating if a secretary of Defense feels that domestic politics are interfering with the best interests of the mission or the troops, as well as to career bureaucrats who resent the interference of those they view as uninitiated in the ways of military power.

The changing nature of war in the 21st century compounds these problems. Wars nowadays are unlikely to be about armies sweeping across terrain and clear-cut missions. They are much more likely to be subtle, contentious and ambiguous in their outcomes. As much as presidents would like to establish clear narratives of success within one election cycle, the outcomes of nation-building campaigns like those in Afghanistan and Iraq can’t be fully assessed until years or even decades after they are completed.

Caught between pressure to provide a quick win by the men who appointed them and the more sober and realistic assessments of the uniformed military, secretaries of Defense are quickly lost in a moral and practical maze.

Gates faced these problems in a period of unusually intense partisan rancor in Washington and public disillusionment with the wars of the last decade. At the same time, he felt a deep responsibility and emotional connection to the servicemen and women who continued to be in harm’s way.

Some people are wondering at the apparent ferocity of Gates’ attack on today’s Washington. But we ought instead to marvel at a man who managed to keep plugging away for so long despite these intense pressures. The continuation of good civilian-military relations depends on such sacrifices, and Robert Gates made them in spades — even if he sometimes got a little grumpy along the way.

Andrew Gawthorpe is a teaching fellow at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
 

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