Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M Gates - book review

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There’s a perfect piece of Washington DC anthropology by the 33rd president of the United States, Harry S Truman, that should be carefully tucked into the back pocket of US political correspondents and pulled out when crises, such as placing too much faith in the White House, arise unexpectedly.

As a former haberdasher who exposed fraud and corruption in a senate investigation into war profiteering, Truman said he spent his first six months in Washington wondering how the hell he got there, and the next six months wondering how the hell everyone else got there.

In the case of Robert Gates, the former defence secretary under George W Bush who continued in his post through the early years of Barack Obama’s first administration, the confusion  is not just that Obama kept him on, but that Gates chose to serve under a commander-in-chief  who had made plain his distaste for much of Dubya’s foreign and military adventures.

In Gates’ latest autobiography, Duty, a believable explanation to that riddle fails to arrive convincingly despite 594 pages of trying. The sub-heading for Gates’ first autobiography in 1996 claimed it was “The Ultimate Insider’s Story” of five presidents. And that’s perfectly true: Gates is the insider’s insider. He served at the top of the CIA, been a member of the National Security Council under eight different White House administrations,  worked as a US Air Force officer in the Strategic Air Command, and therefore knows the Pentagon, from top to bottom, as well as any previous defence secretary.

In political terms, that’s both a lot of armour and ammunition. So why the word Duty? Within a couple of pages Gates claims that when George W called on him in 2006 he decided : “If the president thinks I can help, I had no choice but to say yes, it’s my duty”.  That’s too early in any weighty memoir to stop believing in the writer. But it’s a sceptic’s warning flare that’s entirely apt. Gates’ Duty isn’t patriotic, its vitriolic. Without the Republican loyalty Gates bathed in as part of  Bush’s team, his book is effectively a get-even account from someone who failed to find enough people listening to him in Obama’s White House.

Gates has a reputation for being a calm analyst. He apparently doesn’t do noisy. Yet his book, the first by a former Obama cabinet official, shouts its anger page by page.

Afghanistan, for example, was George Bush’s war. Obama thought Dubya’s response was an understandable response given 9/11, but he campaigned for the presidency demanding an exit strategy.

Like a complaining Essex to Henry VIII, or a frustrated Cecil to Elizabeth I, Gates’ advice fell on deaf ears. Duty is pay-back time - and although it comes with Shakespearean praise for President Obama, its mostly venom.

The hybrid attack, written in calm but ultimately dull academic prose, is often confusing. What the hell does Gates mean when he writes “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission”?

That’s a Capitol Hill aphorism that would be rendered pointless in West Point or left to gather dust in a drawer at the Newseum just round the corner from Gates’ old office.

Obama’s presidency, given what it stands for and when it arrived, was always going to struggle. Nevertheless the Republicans will welcome Duty as a campaign contribution for next time – heavy duty or not.