THE IRAQ & AFGHAN WARS IN LIGHT OF THE GATES MEMOIRS
"Among US public servants of his generation, Robert Gates is one of the few to command deep respect across the board. Though a registered Republican, and a Reagan-era hawk, the former defence secretary under George W Bush and Barack Obama may even be better liked by Democrats. Reticent, professional, discreet, bipartisan and diligent are all words that spring to mind. “Yoda” was his nickname among Obama’s people, in reference to the sapient Jedi knight in Star Wars.... As a journalist, I agree with what has been highlighted about this book in the US media. As a reviewer, considering Duty in its entirety, my takeaway is somewhat different from the headlines. The most striking aspect is how gently Gates dishes out his criticisms. Of the book’s more than 600 pages, perhaps only 10 would reflect badly on either president that he served as Pentagon chief. Gates is disappointed at how calculating Obama can be. In one much-quoted passage, he expresses shock at the casual way in which both Obama and Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, admitted to having opposed Bush’s 2007 Iraq surge purely for electoral reasons. Gates was cajoled into service by Bush to oversee the surge in Iraq; he was retained by Obama to oversee the one in Afghanistan in 2009. You might dub him a surgeocrat. But kiss-and-tell memoirist would be taking it too far. Here is a passage that recurs many times in one form or another. “Although, as I’ve said, political considerations were far more a part of national security debates under Obama, time and again I saw him make a decision that was opposed by his political advisers”. Or this: “Fortunately, the rancor and bitterness of the Afghan debate in late 2009 did not spill over into other areas, and the team worked together better than most I had observed.” In all, Gates has served eight presidents. Some of his observations reflect his deeply ingrained loyalty to the office of the US commander-in-chief – a chloroformic patriotism envelops much of the book. But there is no doubt that he left with a strong personal respect for Obama. After one of the few occasions when Gates and Obama lost their tempers – over a relatively modest dispute on the Pentagon budget – the president mollifies his Pentagon chief with the gift of a bottle of vodka. On it he attached a note apologising for having pushed Gates to drink. “Obama was civil in his impatience,” Gates writes, “never nasty, cutting, or personal....” As Iraq descends into another civil war and Afghanistan disgorges yet another hegemon, Washington is squabbling over who to blame. “We entered both countries oblivious to how little we knew,” writes Gates. His book offers scant reassurance that anything fundamental has changed."Edward Luce, "Review: ‘Duty’, by Robert Gates." The Financial Times. 10 January 2014, in www.ft.com.
"In the end, the battle for a secular, modernist order in the Arab world is an endeavor for the Arabs themselves. But power matters, and a great power's will and prestige can help tip the scales in favor of modernity and change....A successful war in Iraq would be true to this pattern. It would embolden those who wish for the Arab world deliverance from retrogression and political decay. Thus far, the United States has been simultaneously an agent of political reaction and a promoter of social revolution in the Arab-Muslim world. Its example has been nothing short of revolutionary, but from one end of the Arab world to the other, its power has inevitably been on the side of political reaction, and a stagnant status quo. A new war should come with the promise that the United States is now on the side of reform."Fouad Ajami, "Iraq and the Arabs Future." Foreign Affairs. (January/February 2003), pp. 3-4. In light of the current Al Qaeda surge into Western Iraq, admittedly not likely to succeed for much longer as well as coming American / NATO withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, the Gates memoirs make for interesting reading. Not so much for the description of that staple of American political memoirs: political infighting among individuals who are serving in the same administration, as for the underlying rationale for the twin surges in 2007 and 2009 into Iraq and Afghanistan. Military campaigns which Gates, as Secretary of Defense, was in charge of. While at the time, the surges, particularly that into Iraq were hailed as being great successes and indeed almost providing a justification for the entire Iraq imbroglio, in view of current circumstances, this is difficult to take seriously. At the very best, the Iraqi surge in retrospect merely provided a Kissingerian 'decent interval' for the eventual withdrawal of American troops from that country. Which having been completed in December 2011, Iraq has to some extent, albeit not entirely, become a Persian associate power if not ally. So much for the strategic, region-wide, game-changing results that the ouster of Saddam Hussein was supposed to usher in. Similarly, it is quite clear from Gates memoirs, that both the President and Vice-President were extremely reluctant if not in fact secretly opposed to the Afghan surge of 2009. And in light of the impending withdrawal of American & NATO combat troops from that country as well, at the end of the current year, with little real, structural improvement to be shown for the surge of American troops into that country, one is hard put to not classify the Afghanistan surge as merely a political fig leaf to adorn a policy which by the summer of 2009 had little sense to it. It is evident to my mind, that in retrospect, the Rumsfeld policy of keeping a minimum amount of troops in Afghanistan, concentrating solely upon Al Qaeda was and is by far the very best policy. Historically, Afghanistan had no strategic importance by itself. Its sole importance has been its relations to other powers and countries. Sans the terrorist outrage of the 11th of September 2001, it is doubtful that Afghanistan had any rationale to support employing American troops in the same. Which is not to say that perhaps the Americans should have not supported the 'Northern Alliance' in the years after 1995. But that would be merely as a spoiler operation to keep the Taliban regime on its feet. Similarly, from a purely machtpolitik perspective, it is obvious that Iraq under Saddam Hussein, post-bellum from 1991 onwards, was infinitely better than the current, Shiite, sectarian regime who has controlled the country in the past half dozen years. Under Saddam, Iraq was weak, but reliably anti-Persian, and anti-Islamist. Whose mere presence provided an extremely plausible rationale for an American presence in the regime and in the Gulf in particular. Something that one would be hard put to describe as being the case now. In short, the Gates memoirs highlight the fact that the most important military campaigns of his tenure were both in strategic terms ultimately worthless. Whose only rationale was a sort of political expediency of the very worst kind. So much for the man who Senator John McCain has (accurately enough I believe having seen Secretary Gates up close myself recently) described as: 'one of the finest public servants I have ever known' 1. 1. Paul Gregan, "McCain on Gates on McCain." The Financial Times. 12 January 2014, in www.ft.com. I myself had the opportunity of seeing Secretary Gates up close on the 25th of June at New York's Lotus Club, where he was honored by a 'state dinner' and given membership of that august organization.