This is a book about my more than four and a half years at war. It is, of course, principally about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial victories in both countries were squandered by mistakes, shortsighted- ness, and conflict in the field as well as in Washington, leading to long, brutal campaigns to avert strategic defeat. It is about the war against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, those responsible for our national tragedy on September 11, 2001. But this book is also about my political war with Congress every day I was in office and the dramatic contrast between my public respect, bipartisanship, and calm, and my private frustration, disgust, and anger. There were also political wars with the White House, often with the White House staff, occasionally with the presidents themselves—more with President Obama than with President Bush. And finally, there was my bureaucratic war with the Department of Defense and the military services, aimed at transforming a department organized to plan for war into one that could wage war, changing the military forces we had into the military forces we needed to succeed.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama were, respectively, the seventh and eighth presidents I worked for. I knew neither man when I began working for them, and they did not know me. To my astonishment (and consternation), I became the only secretary of defense in history to be asked to remain in the position by a newly elected president, let alone one of a different party. I came to the job in mid-December 2006 with the sole purpose of doing what I could to salvage the mission in Iraq from disaster. I had no idea how to do it, nor any idea of the sweeping changes I would need to make at the Pentagon to get it done. And I had no idea how dramatically and how far my mission over time would expand beyond Iraq.
As I look back, there is a parallel theme to my four and a half years at war: love. By that I mean the love—there is no other word for it—I came to feel for the troops, and the overwhelming sense of personal responsibility I developed for them. So much so that it would shape some of my most significant decisions and positions. Toward the end of my time in office, I could barely speak to them or about them without being overcome with emotion. Early in my fifth year, I came to believe my determination to protect them—in the wars we were in and from new wars—was clouding my judgment and diminishing my usefulness to the president, and thus it played a part in my decision to retire.
I make no pretense that this book is a complete, much less definitive, history of the period from 2006 to 2011. It is simply my personal story about being secretary of defense during those turbulent, difficult years.
Summoned to Duty
I had become president of Texas A&M University in August 2002, and by October 2006 I was well into my fifth year. I was very happy there, and many—but not all—Aggies believed I was making significant improvements in nearly all aspects of the university (except football). I had originally committed to staying five years but agreed to extend that to seven years—summer 2009. Then my wife, Becky, and I would finally return to our home in the Pacific Northwest.
The week of October 15, 2006, the week that would change my life, started out routinely with several meetings. Then I took to the road, ending up in Des Moines, Iowa, where I was to give a speech on Friday, the twentieth.
Just past one p.m. that day I received an e-mail from my secretary, Sandy Crawford, saying that President Bush’s national security adviser, Steve Hadley, wanted to speak to me on the phone within an hour or two. Hadley’s assistant was “quite insistent” that the message be passed to me. I told Sandy to inform the assistant I would return Steve’s call on Saturday morning. I had no idea why Steve was calling, but I had spent nearly nine years at the White House on the National Security Council (NSC) staff under four presidents, and I knew that the West Wing often demanded instant responses that were rarely necessary.
Hadley and I had first met on the NSC staff in the summer of 1974 and had remained friends, though we were in contact infrequently. In January 2005, Steve—who had succeeded Condoleezza Rice as George W. Bush’s national security adviser for the second Bush term—had asked me to consider becoming the first director of national intelligence (DNI), a job created by legislation the previous year, legislation—and a job—that I had vigorously opposed as unworkable. The president and his senior advisers wanted me to make it work. I met with Hadley and White House chief of staff Andy Card in Washington on Monday of inauguration week. We had very detailed conversations about authorities and presidential empowerment of the DNI, and by the weekend they and I both thought I would agree to take the job.
I was to call Card at Camp David with my final answer the following Monday. Over the weekend I wrestled with the decision. On Saturday night, lying awake in bed, I told Becky she could make this decision really easy for me; I knew how much she loved being at Texas A&M, and all she had to say was that she didn’t want to return to Washington, D.C. Instead, she said, “We have to do what you have to do.” I said, “Thanks a lot.”
Late Sunday night I walked around the campus smoking a cigar. As I walked past familiar landmarks and buildings, I decided I could not leave Texas A&M; there was still too much I wanted to accomplish there. And I really, really did not want to go back into government. I called Andy the next morning and told him to tell the president I would not take the job. He seemed stunned. He must have felt that I had led them on, which I regretted, but it really had been a last-minute decision. There was one consolation. I told Becky, “We are safe now—the Bush administration will never ask me to do another thing.” I was wrong.
At nine a.m. on Saturday—now nearly two years later—I returned Steve’s call as promised. He wasted no time in posing a simple, direct question: “If the president asked you to become secretary of defense, would you accept?” Stunned, I gave him an equally simple, direct answer without hesitation: “We have kids dying in two wars. If the president thinks I can help, I have no choice but to say yes. It’s my duty.” The troops out there were doing their duty—how could I not do mine?
That said, I sat at my desk frozen. My God, what have I done? I kept thinking to myself. I knew that after nearly forty years of marriage, Becky would support my decision and all that it meant for our two children as well, but I was still terrified to tell her.
Josh Bolten, a former director of the Office of Management and Bud- get, who had replaced Card as White House chief of staff earlier that year, called a few days later to reassure himself of my intentions. He asked if I had any ethical issues that could be a problem, like hiring illegal immigrants as nannies or housekeepers. I decided to have some fun at his expense and told him we had a noncitizen housekeeper. Before he began to hyperventilate, I told him she had a green card and was well along the path to citizenship. I don’t think he appreciated my sense of humor.
Bolten then said a private interview had to be arranged for me with the president. I told him I thought I could slip into Washington for dinner on Sunday, November 12, without attracting attention. The president wanted to move faster. Josh e-mailed me on October 31 to see if I could drive to the Bush ranch near Crawford, Texas, for an early morning meeting on Sunday, November 5.
The arrangements set up by deputy White House chief of staff Joe Hagin were very precise. He e-mailed me that I should meet him at eight-thirty a.m. in McGregor, Texas, about twenty minutes from the ranch. I would find him in the parking lot at the Brookshire Brothers grocery store, sitting in a white Dodge Durango parked to the right of the entrance. Dress would be “ranch casual”—sport shirt and khakis or jeans. I look back with amusement that my job interviews with both President Bush and President-elect Obama involved more cloak-and- dagger clandestinity than most of my decades-long career in the CIA.
I did not tell anyone other than Becky what was going on except for the president’s father, former president George H. W. Bush (the forty- first president, Bush 41), with whom I wanted to consult. He was the reason I had come to Texas A&M in the first place, in 1999, to be the interim dean of the George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. What was supposed to be a nine-month stint of a few days a month became two years and led directly to my becoming president of Texas A&M. Bush was sorry I would be leaving the university, but he knew the country had to come first. I also think he was happy that his son had reached out to me.
I left my house just before five a.m. to head for my interview with the president. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought a blazer and slacks more appropriate for a meeting with the president than a sport shirt and jeans. Starbucks wasn’t open that early, so I was pretty bleary-eyed for the first part of the two-and-a-half-hour drive. I was thinking the entire way about questions to ask and answers to give, the magnitude of the challenge, how life for both my wife and me would change, and how to approach the job of secretary of defense. I do not recall feeling any self- doubt on the drive to the ranch that morning, perhaps a reflection of just how little I understood the direness of the situation. I knew, however, that I had one thing going for me: most people had low expectations about what could be done to turn around the war in Iraq and change the climate in Washington.
During the drive I also thought about how strange it would be to join this administration. I had never had a conversation with the president. I had played no role in the 2000 campaign and was never asked to do so. I had virtually no contact with anyone in the administration during Bush’s first term and was dismayed when my closest friend and mentor, Brent Scowcroft, wound up in a public dispute with the administration over his opposition to going to war in Iraq. While I had known Rice, Hadley, Dick Cheney, and others for years, I was joining a group of people who had been through 9/11 together, who had been fighting two wars, and who had six years of being on the same team. I would be the outsider.
I made my clandestine rendezvous in McGregor with no problem. As we approached the ranch, I could see the difference in security as a result of 9/11. I had visited other presidential residences, and they were always heavily guarded, but nothing like this. I was dropped off at the president’s office, a spacious but simply decorated one-story building some distance from the main house. It has a large office and sitting room for the president, and a kitchen and a couple of offices with computers for staff. I arrived before the president (always good protocol), got a cup of coffee (finally), and looked around the place until the president arrived a few minutes later, promptly at nine. (He was always exceptionally punctual.) He had excused himself from a large group of friends and family celebrating his wife Laura’s sixtieth birthday.
We exchanged pleasantries, and he got down to business. He talked first about the importance of success in Iraq, saying that the current strategy wasn’t working and that a new one was needed. He told me he was thinking seriously about a significant surge in U.S. forces to restore security in Baghdad. He asked me about my experience on the Iraq Study Group (more later) and what I thought about such a surge. He said he thought we needed new military leadership in Iraq and was taking a close look at Lieutenant General David Petraeus. Iraq was obviously upper-most on his mind, but he also talked about his concerns in Afghanistan; a number of other national security challenges, including Iran; the climate in Washington; and his way of doing business, including an insistence on candor from his senior advisers. When he said specifically that his father did not know about our meeting, I felt a bit uncomfortable, but I did not disabuse him. It was clear he had not consulted his father about this possible appointment and that, contrary to later speculation, Bush 41 had no role in it....
Continued in DUTY: Memoirs of a Secretary at War…
Robert M. Gates served as secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011. He also served as an officer in the United States Air Force and worked for the Central Intelligence Agency before being appointed director of the agency by President George H. W. Bush. He was a member of the National Security Council staff in four administrations and served eight presidents of both political parties. Additionally, Gates has a continuing distinguished record in the private sector and in academia, including currently serving as chancellor of the College of William and Mary. He holds a Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown University.