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Duty by Robert Gates - NYTimes book review

Stashed in: Obama!

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Learn anything from this book review?

"As I was reading “Duty,” probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever, I kept thinking that Robert M. Gates clearly has no desire to work in the federal government again in his life. That evidently is a fertile frame of mind in which to write a book like this one."

Gates is more respectful of Obama, who appears here a complex figure — smart, deliberative, always civil but also a bit detached. Gates reports that Obama told him “one reason he ran for president was because he was so bored in the Senate.”

Obama comes off worst in his handling of the Afghan war. Gates describes the deliberations over Afghanistan policy in 2009 as a “train wreck.” Emerging from that bruising process, Obama was wary of his generals, at one point asking why he was being disrespected by them and griping to Gates, “Do they think because I’m young that I don’t see what they’re doing?” Gates reports sitting in a meeting in the White House Situation Room and thinking unhappily that “the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Gates had some strange encounters of his own with the military. In June 2007 he was discussing the state of the surge in Iraq with Gen. David Petraeus, then the American commander there, when Petraeus mused, with a small chuckle, “You know, I could make your life miserable” — presumably by asking for more troops, which would create huge political problems. Gates writes that he interpreted the comment as a threat. (He notes in an aside that years later, Obama declined to nominate Petraeus to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs because “the White House didn’t trust him and was suspicious that he had political ambitions.”) At another point, Petraeus was so aggressive in arguing with the president that “I came within a whisker of telling him to shut up.”

But Gates is doing far more than just scoring points in this revealing volume. The key to reading it is understanding that he was profoundly affected by his role in sending American soldiers overseas to fight and be killed or maimed. During his four years as defense secretary, he states twice, he wept almost every night as he signed letters of condolence and then lay in bed and meditated on the dead and wounded. He was angry and disappointed with White House officials and members of Congress who appeared to him to put political gain ahead of the interests of American soldiers. Fittingly, he concludes the book by revealing that he has requested to be buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of many of those we lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thank you -- excellent excerpts.

Now more than ever I'm angry, confused, and dismayed by the policies that put so many of our people in harm's way in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even our leaders didn't want these wars, it sounds like.

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