A Guide to Revelations in Robert Gates’ Book (Duty): The Obama Years

Robert Gates’ memoir, Duty, which will be released later this week, contains significant insights into US foreign policy and international affairs affecting our country’s national security. This post identifies some of the book’s highlights along that dimension. Some of the following involves new information, and others involve confirmation of existing, but previously disputed accounts.

1. Israel and Iran

Gates suspected that Israel may have been responsible for leaking highly secret information to New York Times reporter David Sanger. Sanger’s story (here) reported that (a) Israel asked the US in 2008 for bunker-busting bombs and for permission for overflight of Iraq to strike Iranian nuclear facilities and (b) the US had (instead) conducted a covert action to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program through computer systems and other networks. Gates writes:

“I could not for the life of me understand why someone would leak information about programs that were an alternative to war. But the leaks would continue. I didn’t know whether they were coming from the administration, from the Israelis, or both” (pp. 328-29).

Gates writes that in 2009 Israeli leaders were keen to launch a military strike on Iran. He also states that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had highly unrealistic expectations, in Gates’ view, about the success of a military strike. Gates writes:

“Israel’s leaders were itching to launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure” (p. 387).

“Bibi was convinced the Iranian regime was extremely fragile and that a strike on their nuclear facilities very likely would trigger the regime’s overthrow by the Iranian people. I strongly disagreed, convinced that a foreign military attack would instead rally the Iranian people behind their government. Netanyahu also believed Iranian retaliation after a strike would be pro forma, perhaps the launch of a few dozen missiles at Israel and some rocket salvos from Lebanese-based Hizballah. … He was assuming a lot in anticipating a mild Iranian reaction ….” (p. 389).

Gates writes that he thought the US military “needed to prepare for a possible Israeli attack,” (pp. 390), and he recommended the President to move military assets into the region in case of “a no-warning Israeli attack or Iranian provocation” (pp. 391-93).

2. US-Afghanistan (Karzai) relations

Gates writes that the State Department interfered in the 2009 Afghan elections in an attempt to oust President Karzai—despite the public position of the administration at the time. Gates writes:

“Holbrooke was doing his best to bring about the defeat of Karzai in the August 20 [2009] elections. Richard had spoken for months about the need for creating a ‘level playing field’ for all presidential candidates … What he really wanted was to have enough credible candidates running to deny Karzai a majority in the election, thus forcing a runoff in which he could be defeated.  … Our public position was one of neutrality among the candidates. But Holbrooke and U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry were encouraging the other candidates … and making suggestions [to them]” (p. 358).

Gates states that Karazai knew the US interfered in the elections (p. 481 and p. 358), which created significant setbacks for US interests. In describing those setbacks, Gates writes:

“[A]s Peter Lavoy, the senior intelligence officer briefing the NSC, later told us, Karzai saw the United States—the Oabam admionsitration—walking away from him and turned to the warlords and made deals to get reelected.” (p. 358)

“Our future dealings with Karzai, always hugely problematic, and his criticisms of us, are at least more understandable in the context of our clumsy and failed putsch” (p. 359).

3. US-Pakistan relations

Gates writes that the Pakistan military’s carrying out “extra-judicial killings” eroded relations with the United States, and he reports that he directly raised the issue with Pakistan’s political and military leaders. [For background, the Washington Post recently reported that Snowden documents reveal that, on the basis of communications intercepts and other intelligence, “US. spy agencies for years reported that senior Pakistani military and intelligence leaders were orchestrating a wave of extrajudicial killings of terrorism suspects and other militants.”] Gates writes:

“On January 21-22, I met with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and most important, the chief of the army general staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. My message was consistent: … the Pakistani army’s ‘extra-judicial killings’ (executions) were putting our relationship at risk” (pp. 476-77).

Gates states that he had little faith in the Pakistani government – despite what he said in public at the time. He writes:

“Although I would defend them [the Pakistani government] in front of Congress and to the press to keep the relationship from getting worse—and endangering our supply line from Karachi—I knew they were really no ally at all” (p. 477).

4. Military intervention in Libya

Gates suggests that the State Department’s effort to get the UN Resolution authorizing force to include reference to protection of civilians was considered to provide a legal basis for targeting Qaddafi’s residences. He writes:

“Rice was directed to pursue a tougher UN resolution that would provide for the protection of civilians, thus allowing us to bomb a broad range of Libyan military and command-and-control targets (the latter including Qaddafi’s residences” (p. 518-19).

According to Gates, the administration contemplated American ground forces if Qaddafi resorted to chemical weapons.

“There would be no use of American ground forces, except for search and rescue if one of our pilots went down over Libya, or if Qaddafi made a move to use his chemical weapons” (p. 518).

Gates writes that in a private aside, President Obama told him that the military intervention was a very close call. Gates says:

“In a private side conversation with me after the [March 17, 2011 principals’] meeting, the president said the Libyan military operation had been a 51-49 call for him” (p. 519).

5. US-France relations (intelligence cooperation)

Gates suggests that there is essentially no political prospect for adding France to the exclusive group of US allies that agree not to spy on one another—the so-called “Five Eyes” —despite efforts of Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence (DNI), to forge such an agreement. Gates writes:

“[T]he final straw [in forcing Blair out as DNI] was his single-handed attempt to negotiate an agreement with the French intelligence services limiting activities in each other’s country. The idea had zero support anywhere in the administration and, frankly, was considered kind of bizarre” (p. 429).

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Finally, it is important to end with a caveat. These “revelations” are only Gates’ own account. He acknowledges in reflecting on his memoir, “I make no pretense that this book is a complete, much less definitive, history of the period … It is simply my personal story about being secretary of defense during those turbulent, difficult years”  (p. x).

  

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.