Shadow Government

Something for Everyone to Hate and Love in Gates's Blockbuster Memoir

There are just enough teasers out there to confirm that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's soon-to-be-released memoir offers something for everyone to love and to hate.

Defenders of President Barack Obama will love that Gates apparently defends some of the president's more controversial decisions, including the decision to undercut his Afghanistan surge by simultaneously issuing an arbitrary withdrawal timetable. Those same defenders will hate other sections more pleasing to the president's opponents, for instance when Gates confirms some of the sharpest critiques that outsiders have leveled against the president: the extent to which Obama and his team of advisors let partisan political considerations shape their perception of national security interests and the way they fostered distrust between civilian and military leaders.

Hawks will love the way Gates repeats their talking point about the success of the Iraq surge. But the neo-isolationist left and right will love that Gates repeats their talking point that "presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun."  And "moderates" will love that Gates repeats their talking point, reserving his most caustic comments for ideologues in Congress, most of which Gates regards as "uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country." (Come to think of it, given how low Congress rates in the approval ratings of the public, perhaps everyone will find something to like in that statement -- only they will privately exempt their side from that critique and believe that Gates must have only meant to damn their political opponents. Gates, for his part, seems to intend to damn all sides.)

For my part, I am looking forward to reading the book to see what it says about two areas I follow very closely: civil-military relations and the politics of national security. The teasers thus far confirm what is already obvious to any close observer: Obama has presided over very fractious civil-military relations, and Obama's first term was far more politicized than Bush's second term. Indeed, the most damaging revelation in all of the accounts I have seen thus far is when Gates reports that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confided to Obama that she opposed the Iraq surge primarily for short-term political advantage in the primaries -- and president Obama apparently acknowledged that his opposition to the Iraq surge was political as well. Because of the stakes involved, this can't be spun away as "gambling in the casino" -- the typical way that politicians seek political advantage from policy disputes. Gates has the two leading candidates for the out-party nomination admitting that they opposed a strategy designed to reverse the country's trajectory from failure to success not based on their assessment about the wisdom of that strategy but so as to outmaneuver each other in wooing the hard-left base of their party. This comes very close to Gates having Clinton and Obama admit that they preferred the political benefit that might come their way from the United States being defeated in Iraq than doing what was needed to win a war. In the teasers, Gates stops just short of making that charge, and for the sake of the country, I hope that the charge is not warranted. But the burden is now on both Clinton and Obama to prove a more benign interpretation.

Other revelations confirm my fears about the way the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan have corroded civil-military relations. Gates reports that Obama repeatedly questioned the motives of military leaders who offered professional advice with which he disagreed. And Gates talks about how the insularity and micromanagement of the White House contributed to a poisonous policymaking process. Gates acknowledges that it might be unfair to compare the more experienced Bush second-term team with the less-experienced Obama first-term team, but the contrast is striking nonetheless and helps explain the dominant pattern of the last five years: that Obama has enjoyed foreign-policy success mostly when he followed in Bush's footsteps and suffered foreign-policy setbacks when striking out in his own direction.

The book also raises other important meta-questions worth debating:

  • Should subordinates publish such critical memoirs while the president they served is still in office? While I think the public benefits from knowing Gates's critiques (and defenses) of the president, it is also the case that these memoirs poison the well for internal deliberations, driving administrations into ever-more insular bubbles. Since the Obama administration already suffers from an acute case of insularity, I worry about the pernicious effect of the timing of this memoir.
  • Should a secretary of defense have such an emotional bond with the troops, or does the nature of his job require more emotional distance? The nation would be ill-served by a secretary of defense who was callous and insensitive to the human costs of war. But the nation might also be ill-served if a secretary of defense became so haunted by those costs that he reflexively opposed military tools when they were needed.

I hope that reading the book with all these considerations in mind will help me answer the biggest question of all: Is Gates' ability to simultaneously please and displease so many people a sign of wisdom or of incoherence? Gates's celebrated record as secretary of defense gives him a strong presumption of wisdom, but it is a wisdom that does not neatly fit into existing categories.


Shadow Government

A Fateful Funding Decision on the Middle East and North Africa

The Obama administration's decision to reduce democracy funding for the Middle East and North Africa is disappointing if not a surprise. It is not a surprise because Barack Obama has not been committed to this effort the way George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were. The large amounts spent in the first year of the Obama administration were actually the monies budgeted by Bush in his last year, and Obama never tried to increase such funding even with the advent of the Arab Spring. In the ensuing years under Obama, the U.S. commitment to democracy in the region has effectively waned if we count dollars not spent when the need was so great. And now the administration has announced a cut of more than 50 percent to these programs.

But we can also review strategy and rhetoric to get a handle on the administration's priorities, and these tell a tale as well. They show us that a reduction in funding was only a matter of time. The sequester played a role here, as did the need to increase spending on security. However, the administration finds money for other programs when it values them, but it has not valued spending on democracy sufficient to find the funds.

Those of us who worked in the Bush administration on these efforts learned early on from our many contacts among both career officials and Obama's political appointees that there would be a change. (NB: Support for democracy is one of the most nonpartisan efforts in all of the federal government, and those who do this work or comment and write about it tend to have regular and collaborative relationships with each other no matter their party or politics.) Rather than leading with support for democracy as the primary way to help democrats around the world build peaceful, just, and prospering societies, the administration planned to return to the old approach to international development, which is to emphasize health, education, agriculture, economics, and selected human rights issues and consider these efforts to be support for democracy. They believe that when these programs bear fruit, democracy is implicitly being built. From this approach one infers that leading with democracy is hard (admittedly, it is, and no administration has been perfect on this) and also that it is infeasible because it alienates "useful" dictators and sometimes causes instability as democratic uprisings roil societies and cause collateral damage to other U.S. foreign-policy priorities. This is a point well taken and not to be dismissed -- we should all be willing and able to channel our inner Henry Kissinger. Indeed, not every good intention to support democracy somewhere around the world is a wise idea when context is taken into account.

And certainly the president has every right to insist on his own approach and strategy, but he should expect constructive criticism. I would therefore aver that a change in strategy away from the hard work of supporting democrats around the world to build parties, strengthen civil society and the rule of law, and develop a free press to something more in keeping with the administration's stress on secondary rights and needs is a mistake. When U.S. policy is to offer dictators programs that they have always been more willing to countenance if we'll just leave them alone about their "presidencies for life," such a policy might well alleviate current suffering. But more likely it will help dictators stay in power while they further entrench themselves (see Ecuador which has just effectively kicked USAID out of the country after years of benefitting from its programs).

So the administration's mistake in my view is its failure to appreciate what true development is: It is, as economist Amartya Sen and others have observed, captured in one word: freedom. Only when people are free to challenge their government and change it will they be free to use their gifts and talents to prosper themselves, their families, their communities, and their nations. Only then can they truly achieve lasting and broad-based economic development and all the attendant benefits this brings, such as better health and nutrition, better education, and the freedom to be entrepreneurs and sell one's wares and one's labor in a free market while keeping the profits away from a rapacious, corrupt, or incompetent state ruled by a privileged political class. There is no economic development without good government, but there is no good government without democracy, at least if we are seeking sustainable development that maximizes the benefit of everyone's gifts and talents.

I do not doubt at all the administration's good intentions and its desire to see the Middle East and North Africa become more developed and peaceful by means of the "new" strategy. I do not doubt that it believes that supporting human rights, increased economic activity, and greater equity in the economies of developing countries will improve lives and hopefully lead to regional stability and peace. But I doubt very seriously that any dictator in power in any of the region's countries have these as their primary goals. They have one goal; it is the goal of dictators from time immemorial, and it trumps all other goals: to stay in power no matter how much harm they have to cause their countrymen.

But this change in strategy is a mistake for another reason: It will be read as yet another signal by the enemies of the United States and freedom generally that the United States continues to withdraw from the fray. It will also demoralize the Europeans, the Indians, and others who have been supporting democrats around the world. We fool ourselves when we diminish the importance of the United States' reputation in the world by suggesting that we are not exceptional, or when we wring our hands and say that the people of the Middle East and North Africa see us only as exporters of a decadent pop culture. The truth is that we are the beacon of hope and an example to tens of millions of Muslims and Arabs and other peoples of the region. It is our freedom that these millions crave even if a minority among them is willing to kill anyone they can for embracing it. When the United States appears not to place a priority on supporting those who want to live free, we not only harm freedom -- we harm our position in the world as the only country that can aid peace with freedom for all. Our enemies exult in such a withdrawal; our friends and the democratic governments in waiting despair.

I would urge the president and the Congress to work together to shore up funding as well as our image as "the last best hope of the Earth."

Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images