When I worked in Duluth, the paper that I worked at had a policy to endorse candidates in every race for the city council, school board, county board and state Legislature. It was a big production, and we would do two-day marathons, interviewing every candidate for 30 minutes each, breaking only for lunch.
At one point, I had a young reporter on the staff, and he tended to bad-mouth local government officials mercilessly in the office. I finally decided to put him on the endorsement panel, figuring, if nothing else, the rest of us could outvote him if necessary. I was hoping, however, to give him some better insight into how the candidates think, and to help him understand that, regardless of political persuasion, all of these people were well-meaning and each brought certain strengths to the table.
My plan worked like a charm, and after going through the marathon, the young reporter not only learned a lot, but also came away with a better understanding of who the candidates were — that they were human beings wanting to do the right thing, and not just punching bags to be used for partisan jollies.
I thought about that experience recently while reading “Duty” by Robert M. Gates. The book is as fine a memoir on contemporary American politics as I have read.
Gates served as Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011. That means that he served under Republican President George W. Bush, and then was kept on by Democratic President Barack Obama.
Gates goes through the list of principal actors in both administrations, and while he makes it clear that he liked some more than others, he treats all with respect, and with full appreciation for the challenges they faced together.
A good example of that is his description of the effort to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo was a campaign issue in 2008, and Obama wanted to close it. However, here we are six years later and it remains open. Why?
Because the “war” against those Islamic extremists who want to kill Americans goes on. Because bringing 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to New York for a regular criminal trial would have been prohibitively expensive. Because many of the prisoners’ nations of origin refuse to take them back. Etc. Etc.
In this new kind of war, these prisoners are not exactly common criminals nor are they simply prisoners of a war between nation-states. In some ways, in spite of what the ACLU may say, our laws do not fit the situation.
Obama, faced with the responsibility of keeping Americans safe, determined that it is best for now to keep it open, even though his goal remains to close it.
Gates goes on at great length about the difficulty of getting the right generals in charge of the war effort. Like Lincoln, Bush had great difficulty in finding the right general until he and Gates put Gen. David Petraeus in charge.
Throughout the narrative, however, Gates is respectful of all the generals, noting that they were true patriots trying to serve the country they loved. It wasn’t until the troop surge of 2007 under Petraeus leadership that the U.S. was able to turn the tide of war in its favor.
At the same time, Gates expresses frustration because, like the rest of America, the Pentagon continued to act with a peacetime attitude even as it was sending soldiers off to war. Getting the vehicles and equipment soldiers needed to protect themselves from IED explosions was vexing. Even worse was the lackadaisical attitude of some in the Pentagon toward setting a policy for medevac-ing wounded soldiers within one hour.
Gates doesn’t duck any issues, including the controversial decision made by Obama to abandon the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays in the military. Gates said he was warned by some senior enlisted personnel that overturning the policy would result in some gays being murdered by their own side in combat. However, he backed Obama’s decision because he felt that if the courts made the decision before the administration did — a real possibility — the consequences for the military, gays and for national readiness would have been far worse.
The most difficult period of his term as Secretary of Defense came, not surprisingly, immediately after Obama took office. He sat in many national security meetings in which members of the new administration talked about the campaign issue that they had a lot of repair work to do because so many nations hated the U.S. Gates said that had not been his experience, that many nations around the globe had been not only willing but anxious to work with the United States.
Because none of Obama’s top advisers had military experience, it was a learning experience for everyone — including Gates.
And finally, recalling Bush’s comment that he had looked in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes and “got a sense of his soul,” when Gates looked in Putin’s eyes, he saw “a stone cold killer.”
“Duty” is a great read for any American who wants to put partisanship aside.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or email [email protected].