Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert Gates (Knop 2014), 640 pages.
The most interesting parts of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s memoir, Duty, are about how he navigated the Department of Defense (DoD) bureaucracy and the special interests who live off it. A recurring theme is the difficulty Gates had in getting the DoD to provide the services it is expected to provide in a timely and efficient manner. Over and over again, he was stymied by various interested groups — inside and outside of the department — whose overriding concern was to protect the status quo.
After his confirmation as the secretary of defense, Gates became acquainted with the effects that the Iraq and Afghan wars were having on the bottom line. He would be reminded throughout his tenure that so many jobs and so much infrastructure depended on DoD largess:
Most [senators] made sure to acquaint me with the important defense industries in their states and pitch for my support to those shipyards, depots, bases, and related sources of jobs. I was dismayed that in the middle of fighting two wars, such parochial issues were so high on their priority list.
Gates goes on to restate his position much more plainly:
In truth, nothing can prepare you for being secretary of defense, especially during wartime. The size of the place and its budget dwarf everything else in government. As I quickly learned from 535 members of Congress, its programs and spending reach deeply in every state and nearly every community. Vast industries and many local economies are dependent on decisions made in the Pentagon every day. [Emphasis added.]
How can anyone who is interested in reducing government spending on war and the tools to wage war — not that Gates is interested in doing that — possibly win against the entire Congress? This is a type of gerrymandering. Where the traditional gerrymandering exposes a political party’s attempts to secure votes for legislative candidates over the next decade, with military gerrymandering, the “defense” industry secures congressional votes by spreading its facilities throughout the country. That helps ensure their survival in the face of a call for budget cuts.
The reader comes to understand that the protection and funding of specific military-related interests remain the same despite who holds office:
I came to believe that virtually all members of Congress carried what I called a “wallet list,” a list they carried with them at all times so that if, by chance, they might run into me or talk with me on the phone, they had a handy list of local projects and programs to push forward. And some became pretty predictable. If Senator McConnell of Kentucky was calling, it was probably to make sure a chemical weapons disposal plant in his state was fully funded. Anyone elected from Maine or Mississippi would be on the phone about shipyards. California, C-17 cargo planes; Kansas, Washington, or Alabama, the new Air Force tanker; Texas, when were the brigades coming back from Europe and would they go to Fort Bliss?
Thus, it is clear that the CEOs of the country’s largest military contractors have successfully ensured their support in Congress. The individual members of Congress may not care if one company or another succeeds, but you can be sure they care if those government-subsidized jobs leave the state.
The success on the part of military contractors is a natural extension of how the contracts for the DoD are written. Gates writes,
The military departments develop their budgets on a five-year basis, and most procurement programs take many years — if not decades — from decision to delivery. As a result, budgets and programs are locked in for years at a time, and all the bureaucratic wiles of each military department are dedicated to keeping those programs intact and funded. They are joined in those efforts by the companies that build the equipment, the Washington lobbyists that those companies hire, and the members of Congress in whose states or districts those factories are located.
The way in which members of Congress are bought and sold is painfully clear: “At one hearing, one of my staff was walking behind Senator Patty Murray of Washington and noticed that no one had bothered to remove the Boeing letterhead from her talking points.”
At the same time, Gates provides dozens of examples of how the bureaucracy also has a life of its own, procuring, spending, and continuing defense-related projects without much input from Congress.
Gates suggests that everyone in the bureaucracy seems complicit in this scam. When one branch of the military wants a project, someone makes an end-run around the secretary and goes to a sympathetic congressman — or vice versa. One would presume that the branches actually want the equipment procured so deviously. Not so. Whether it’s the Abrams tank or a new plane, government-sponsored contracts are sometimes just earmarks for the benefit of parochial, state interests:
Despite multiple Air Force studies showing that we had plenty of [C-17] cargo aircraft, Congress just kept stuffing more C-17s into the budget in order to preserve the jobs on the production line. The Air Force didn’t need more, didn’t want more, and couldn’t afford more.
No one should be surprised that members of Congress are more concerned with what their big donors have to say than in protecting our rights. What makes Gates’s book so revealing is that he has worked in eight administrations. He is an insider. His concerns about government bureaucracy and the rank, open, and persistent corruption just in procurement could be a baseline for beginning a conversation about how unwieldy the DoD is.
Gates’s Duty also reveals his views on relations with foreign nations, the consequences of so-called humanitarian intervention, and his admitted failures when it came to changing the bureaucratic roadblocks at DoD. However, as we shall see, he calls for very little change in policy.
No fresh approach
In Gates’s writing, one finds a certain dissonance between when the United States should or should not intervene in another country’s internal affairs. For example, in addition to believing that the civil war in Libya was unrelated to American national interests, he opposed “attacking a third Muslim country within a decade to bring about regime change … [and] worried about how overstretched and tired our military was, and the possibility of a protracted conflict in Libya.” He was concerned that the Obama administration was undermining American military effectiveness, often asking, “Can I just finish the two wars we’re already in before you go looking for new ones?” This is perfectly reasonable. Why is an internal Libyan matter any business of the U.S. government? Nongovernmental organizations, charities, and private citizens should be free to go over — if they can get in — but once the military is in play, “you never know how it will go.”
However, it’s difficult to understand Gates’s reasoning for intervention that he claims is necessary. He often mentions that the United States must come to the military aid of allies because of its obligations:
The United States ultimately had to provide the lion’s share of reconnaissance capability [in Libya] and most of the midair refueling of planes; just three months into the campaign we had to resupply even our strongest allies with precision-guided bombs and missiles — they had exhausted their meager supply. Toward the final stages, we had to reenter the fray with our own fighters and drones. All this was the result of years of underinvestment in defense by our allies.
The first-order questions, as Andrew Bacevich might say, are never even brought up: Why are the American people responsible for resupplying other countries? Is it possible that the U.S. military umbrella subsidizes their defense, giving them no incentive to keep adequate supplies of defensive arms? Of course it does.
The obligations to other countries’ defense not only binds the United States to their military fate, it also leads to negative diplomatic and security consequences with other countries. For example, the U.S. sale of “defensive” arms to Taiwan has caused nothing but consternation in U.S.-China relations.
Moreover, there seems to be little consistency with regards to when Gates believes intervention is appropriate and when it is not. Why does the U.S. government send arms to Taiwan but not Singapore? Intervention seems to have very little to do with the American people’s interests.
In the final chapter, “Reflections,” Gates neatly defines how the American political spectrum views foreign policy:
On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” as a justification for military intervention in Libya, Syria, the Sudan, and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to use military force in Libya, Syria, or Iran is deemed an abdication of American leadership and a symptom of a “soft” foreign policy. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia was framed almost entirely in military terms as opposed to economic and political priorities. And so the rest of the world sees America, above all else, as a militaristic country too quick to launch planes, cruise missiles, and armed drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned places. [Emphasis added.]
The reader may think that Gates has moved past the typical left/right paradigm. He writes that there are limits to what the U.S. government can do and that not every act of aggression in the world should elicit an American military response. So perhaps this consummate D.C. insider believes in, or is at least willing to hear about, a fresh approach to foreign policy. Wrong. He finishes his reflections on this disappointing note: “I strongly believe America must continue to fulfill its global responsibilities. We are the ‘indispensable nation’ and few international problems can be addressed successfully without our leadership.”
This article was originally published in the October 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.