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Thomas Ricks is the author of five books about the U.S. military and says the new book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is “probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever.”
Ricks makes that case by asserting that Gates’ new book names names and offers insight into the difficult decisions that were made by the two presidents Gates served, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“Gates is writing from both the heart and the head, and what he was trying to do was give the Obama administration a shove for its last few years in office,” Ricks tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. “I think what he is saying in the book is that these people put politics above national security, and that they have too many political voices in the room and not enough national security voices at times of major decisions, and that they are contemptuous of the senior uniform military.”
However Ricks says he’s sympathetic towards President Obama when Gates criticizes him for never taking ownership of the war in Afghanistan.
“Of course he doesn’t own the war — he came into office against this. He called it the good war, contrasting it to Iraq. Nonetheless, it was clear Obama took office never intending to be a national security president and really had his eye on domestic policy,” Ricks says.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever - that's the way military analyst Thomas Ricks described Robert Gates' new memoir, about which you've already heard quite a bit - how Gates dishes on everyone from Joe Biden to Donald Rumsfeld to President Obama. But why would one of the most respected military analysts, Tom Ricks, call it one of the best Washington memoirs ever? Let's find out.
Ricks is senior adviser on national security at the New America Foundation. Also, the author of several books on the U.S. military, including most recently "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." He wrote his review of Robert Gates' memoir, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," for this past Sunday's New York Times book review. And Thomas Ricks joins us from NPR studios on New York. Welcome back to HERE AND NOW.
THOMAS RICKS: Thank you.
YOUNG: We'll start with probably the best. Why?
RICKS: That's actually the discussion I've been having with a lot of military friends, analyst friends, and while I really like the book, a lot of them say no, this was improper of him. You don't dish on an administration while it's still in office. I disagree with that. I think I'm in the minority. My view is Gates is writing from both the heart and the head and what he was trying to do was give the Obama administration a shove for its last few years in office.
YOUNG: Where do you see the shove?
RICKS: I think what he's saying in the book is these people put politics above national security, that they have too many political voices in the room and not enough national security voices at times of major decisions, and that they are contemptuous of the senior uniform military.
YOUNG: OK. Well, take us back to 2009, for instance, deliberations about what to do in Afghanistan, the president and his people newly in office. You say Gates is more respectful of President Obama than certainly, oh, people like Vice President Biden in the book, but take us back to those 2009 deliberations. Set the scene for us. Remind us where we are in time and then why it was such a train wreck.
RICKS: It's funny. I find it - I found that part of the book probably the hardest to read simply because it seemed so tangled and it brought back that time to me. The Obama administration at that point is trying to figure out where do we go in Afghanistan, but he finds in Obama a kind of detachment from the entire process, and around Obama he finds people who are, as he puts it, are still in campaign mode; are talking about domestic politics more than lives of troops on the ground. Gates increasingly finds himself appalled by this. When dissent is expressed by him or by generals, the response from the White House tends to be well you guys work for us and this is what we're going to do and you figure out how to get it done. And the military people are kind of feeling they haven't been listened to. The White House people are feeling that the military's being insubordinate.
YOUNG: But Tom, hold it for a second. Isn't this a natural tension? Isn't this an ongoing tension in a lot of administrations?
RICKS: Absolutely. The Bush administration had terrible relations with its senior military, a feeling, again, that they weren't being listened to. Gates' indictment is that this administration was more controlling than any administration he had seen since the Nixon administration. I would say an additional part of that indictment that I agree with is that at least in the Nixon administration you had Nixon and Kissinger, two of the most Machiavellian figures in our history, but also very well informed on foreign policy.
The difference is the people around Obama tend to be political hacks and hill rats, professional congressional staffers, and the people they work for all came out of Congress. And so there's kind of an irony here. Obama used to talk about the "Team of Rivals" Cabinet, but actually it's probably the least diverse cabinet we've ever had in this country on national security. They all come out of Congress and that's a very narrow point of view.
You don't have former corporate officials, former military officials, academics, you historically have seen filling out the national security team. The president, vice president, the secretary of State and the secretary of Defense, the predecessors in those positions all are former members of Congress.
YOUNG: So you have this deep distrust, as you write; a sense of, as you say, detachment on the part of the president, but also a sense that - well, this is what jumped out at everyone early on - that he didn't believe in his own strategy.
RICKS: Yeah, I mean, Gates is kind of appalled by this in the book because he kind of says Obama never owned the war. I'm actually more sympathetic to Obama on this. Of course he doesn't own the war. He came into office against this. He called it the good war, contrasting it to Iraq. Nonetheless, it was clear that Obama took office not intending to be a national security president, and really had his eye on domestic policy. The sad part is if, OK, I get it. If you guys are going to focus on domestic policy though, why didn't you do better on Obamacare?
YOUNG: Well so, again, as a military analyst, you're saying that others are arguing with you over this about this idea that, OK, we have - we're a fly on this wall. What does this tell us going forward? We're looking at peace talks but a civil war in Syria; Iraq imploding again; Afghanistan, terrible relations between this White House and President Karzai as we try to figure out withdrawal there. What does this tell you?
RICKS: It tells me actually that the Obama administration is not unlike the last two years of the Bush administration. The scenarios you describe, except for Syria, were pretty much all an application then: Iraq falling apart, Afghanistan drifting, and in the Middle East you have a huge question mark hanging over it.
YOUNG: And again, you're saying the enormous benefit of this book, why you say it's one of the best Washington memoirs ever is that Gates did write it before the president left office. Not the proper etiquette maybe, but in your view it will give the Obama administration maybe a wakeup call. Military analyst, Thomas Ricks. He wrote Sunday's New York Times review of "Duty," the new memoir from Robert Gates. We'll link you at hereandnow.org.
You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW and we've been speaking with military analyst, Thomas Ricks in his cover story in this past Sunday's New York Times review of books. He calls the new Robert Gates' memoir probably one of the best ever Washington memoirs. The book is "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." Got a lot of buzz a couple weeks ago when it was leaked that the former secretary of Defense dishes about tension between the military and the White House over Afghanistan, concern in the military that President Obama was attached(ph) from even his own policy.
But also the president's feeling that the military didn't respect him. Gates said President Obama asked him at one point, is it because I'm so young? Well, Tom Ricks says this book is so valuable because it was written in time for the young President to maybe adjust course and it could never have been written so honestly by anyone who thought they had any future in Washington.
And Tom, you found that refreshing, but this is also a very emotional Defense secretary. Now, while we have you, we want to ask about some other things military, but just touch on that. Here's a part of speech that Gates made at West Point in 2011. Final speech to the cadets. Let's just listen to some of that.
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SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: As some of you have heard me say before, you need to know that I feel personally responsible for each and every one of you, as if you were my own sons and daughters. For as long as I am secretary of Defense, that will remain true. My only prayer is that you serve with honor and return home safely. I personally thank you for your service from the bottom of my heart.
I bid you farewell and ask God to bless every one of you.
YOUNG: Tom Ricks, we read of a secretary of Defense who weeps every night as he writes handwritten letters to parents of troops killed and carries their names around in little boxes, you know, to remind him. Is this - what's the thinking within the military? Is that kind of emotional attachment good in a secretary of Defense? Are some thinking it's too much? What's the sense?
RICKS: First, it is consistent with how today's military thinks and behaves. It's not uncommon for generals to have photographs of all the soldiers who have died under their command on their desk to remind them. I've had arguments with friends about this. They say it's too emotional, that that's not the role of the secretary of Defense. That George Marshall, in World War II, lost his adopted son; Harry Hopkins, an adviser to the president, lost his son.
But these people made tough, hard decisions every day, much harder than we live with nowadays, during World War II, and that emotionalism should not be part of their brief. I have a different view. I think that you're seeing this emotionalism in someone like Gates because they are trying to connect the American people to the wars being fought on their behalf.
Over the last ten years, this country has been involved in a one percent war: one percent fights, the other 99 percent don't pay a whole lot of attention to it. And I think Gates felt the strain of trying to connect the people to the wars being fought in their name, and he also ran up against a White House that really didn't want to focus on those wars.
I have the feeling that every time a secretary of Defense or a general walked into President Obama's office, he saw the face of William Westmoreland, a Vietnam general who basically helped destroy the Johnson administration. He doesn't want to be Lyndon Johnson, and these generals make him feel like they're - he's being dragged into that.
YOUNG: Well, taking a look ahead, especially with Iraq, which is imploding. Iraq's deputy interior minister said Islamic militants west of Baghdad are so well armed they could occupy Baghdad. We know that weapons are being rushed from the U.S. to Baghdad to be handed out to Sunnis in the hopes that they'll do what they did years ago and rise up against these al-Qaida foreigners who are fighting in Iraq.
Do you think there is a chance for another Sunni, so-called Sunni awakening or, you know, what do you see the future of Iraq?
RICKS: When I look at Iraq today, I have to wonder about everybody who says, well at least we got rid of Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was a bulwark against Iranian expansion westward. Maliki, the guy we left in place running Iraq, is inviting the Iranians in. We made Iraq an ally of Iran, and what we're seeing is the consequences of that.
YOUNG: Well, given how much Iraq is imploding, and given how many other hotspots there are, what's foremost on your mind, Thomas Ricks, as you look at the military future of the U.S. and the hotspots that have to be addressed and the conflicts that still aren't - don't have a door closed on them and the ones that still might be opening?
RICKS: What I worry is we're seeing a regional war morph in the Middle East. We know have fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon is unstable. And we are seeing Syrians fighting in Iraq, we are seeing Iranians providing aid to the Iraqi government. And this is feeling increasingly like a regional conflict to me. It also tells me that U.S. force, while large, is in the end of the day limited and I don't think there are military solutions to the problems of the Middle East, especially not American military solutions.
YOUNG: Quick thought from you too on something else that's really right on the front burner and has to do with security and defense. Edward Snowden - some people shifting, you know, as President Obama reacts to criticism of the NSA, which came to light because of Edward Snowden. People are saying, well wait a second, doesn't that make him a whistleblower? Where do you stand on Edward Snowden?
RICKS: When Snowden first came out, I was very skeptical. He seemed to me like the old British defectors of the Soviet Union, like Kim Philby and Guy Burgess. I really didn't like the fact that he went to Russia because I despise Putin. Yet, with the passage of time, the more I listen to Snowden and the more I listen especially to American intelligence officials, the more sympathetic I become to Snowden.
I think he has revealed excesses and errors by the National Security Administration. I think he has made us have a conversation that this country needed to have. I don't think President Obama would have made that speech he made the other day about reforming the NSA had it not been for Snowden. And the NSA has a history of treating whistleblowers very badly, trying to prosecute them.
Also, these days, the U.S. government says it is legal to execute American citizens who it has deemed to be enemy combatants. Well, if you listen to the way they talk about Snowden, if you listen to intelligence officials joke about killing Snowden, it's not much of a leap to say OK, Snowden's an enemy combatant and we can do a drone strike or something else against him.
So I am becoming much more sympathetic to him the more I hear intelligence officials say go away, we're taking care of everything, trust us. I just don't trust secret policemen to be the interpreters of our constitutional rights. And it really bothers me also that for the last ten years we know there have been crimes committed by U.S. intelligence officials of torture, kidnapping rendition, and we know that there has not been accountability for them. So everybody who wants accountability for Edward Snowden, I say fine. Let's have accountability for the much larger crimes committed by U.S. intelligence officials first.
YOUNG: Thomas Ricks, senior adviser on national security at the New America Foundation, author of several books on the U.S. military, including, "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today," and also the author of the review of Robert Gates' new memoir in the New York Times called, "In Command." We'll link you to that at hereandnow.org.
RICKS: Tom, thanks so much.
YOUNG: And by the way, back to Secretary Gates. Tom says Robert Gates is the best secretary of Defense ever, followed by William Perry, who served under Clinton; and Dick Cheney, as Tom says, before he got crazy, back when he served under President George H.W. Bush. You can hear more at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.