Gates vs. Congress Is The Real War

Ex-defense chief's new book is tougher on Capitol Hill than the White House

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Rod Lamkey / Getty Images

Then-defense secretary Robert Gates testifying before Congress in 2011.

The first day of coverage of former Robert Gates’ book on his years running the Pentagon have focused largely on the strains between him and President Barack Obama’s White House. That should come as no surprise, given that he was kept on as Secretary of Defense — in the middle of two wars — by a Democratic president eager to end those conflicts launched by his Republican predecessor.

The fact is, you end wars with the defense secretary you have, not the one you wish you had. But with a defense chief and a commander-in-chief from different parties, of different generations and with different temperaments, that sort of clash is hardly unusual.

But what comes through more clearly, at least in the excerpt from Gates’ book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at Waris his total disdain for Congress.

“Such difficulties within the executive branch were nothing compared with the pain of dealing with Congress,” Gates writes in the excerpt published by the Wall Street Journal. “I saw most of Congress 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.”

Read that sentence again. It’s breathtaking in its breadth, powerful in its contempt. More importantly, what if he’s right?  

Gates says he was “was more or less continuously outraged” by lawmakers’ intense focus on Pentagon dollars flowing to their home districts or states. “Any defense facility or contract in their district or state, no matter how superfluous or wasteful, was sacrosanct,” he writes. “I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department as inefficient and wasteful but fought tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district.”

Amid two wars, crushing troop mental-health concerns and a hidebound resistance to retooling the U.S. military for the 21st century, it has been amazing to witness how much lawmakers pester Pentagon leaders about a handful of airplanes based back home, or other such chaff, buried in national-security wheat. The founding fathers, as wise as they were, never envisioned a large standing army, never mind that selfishness for its continued presence in lawmakers’ districts would become a central tenet of electoral politicking.

Gates says he “came to believe that no one who had actually been in combat could walk away without scars, without some measure of post-traumatic stress.” But Congress, too, has its own mental-health woes. “It was as though most members were in a permanent state of outrage,” he says, “or suffered from some sort of mental duress that warranted confinement or at least treatment for anger management.”

At least the troops’ PTSD will ebb with the wars’ end.

The fact is, Congress as a whole is a far bigger problem than Gates’ dealings with the White House. Executive branch relations can change with an election or new Cabinet secretary, but the congressional modus operandi that Gates cites is pathological. In concert with their uniformed Pentagon allies, lawmakers in key slots on the armed services and appropriations committees block progress and succor sloth through both their action and inaction. It has led to an immensely inefficient defense establishment, flabby in the wrong places and gaunt where it should be muscular.

As if on cue, Gates’ book instantly became a bobby club for lawmakers to batter the Obama administration. “I blame Obama and Biden for not listening to their commanders, rejecting sound advice and Bob Gates talks about that in his book, how military commanders were overruled by the political people in the White House,” Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Fox News Tuesday night.

Civilian control of the military? Imagine that.