Robert Gates Owes No Loyalty to President Obama

Reuters

As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates prepares for the publication of his memoirs, excerpts critical of his erstwhile boss President Obama are proving controversial. I hesitate to join the debate. There is more important material in his book. But Bret Stephens has written an article in the Wall Street Journal that criticizes Gates in a way that ought to be refuted, lest government officials get the idea that they owe their loyalty to the president rather than the people.

The article's title is "Robert Gates's Dereliction of 'Duty.'"

Reassuringly, Gates was not fond of the self-serving, power-hungry politicians who make up much, though by no means all, of America's governing elite. Like George Washington, who once wrote to a friend that by accepting the presidency, he was giving up “all expectations of private happiness in this world,” Gates was hesitant to serve for as long as he did and thought of resigning many times, because being secretary of defense is an unpleasant task for many non-sociopaths. Stephens is miffed that Gates related disliking the job:

"I did not enjoy being secretary of defense," Mr. Gates writes at one point in the book. Fair enough; he could have retired after serving out the remainder of President Bush's term. He didn't. "People have no idea how much I detest this job," he quotes from an email he wrote in mid-2008, trying to scotch rumors that he would serve under the next administration. Fair enough; he could have turned down Mr. Obama's offer when it was made. He didn't. "If you want me to stay for about a year, I will do so," he told Mr. Obama after the 2008 election. Fair enough; he could have kept the promise to the letter. He didn't; he stayed on for another 29 months. Those are choices Mr. Gates made for his own reasons. Serving as secretary of defense, after all, isn't really a duty; it's an honor and a privilege.

In fact, a job can be a duty, an honor, and a privilege all at once, and it can be a tremendous drag too. A certain kind of person does it anyway if asked by the president. If he is subsequently honest about his feelings that is no reason to criticize him. 

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Stephens goes on, "Honors and privileges, however, do have duties." (So it's a duty after all?) "One is: Don't treat them as a burden." But what if they are a burden? The secretary of defense writes letters to the families of every American who dies in combat and must testify before shamelessly grandstanding legislators. That is just the beginning of their unpleasant responsibilities. Many have remarked that Gates kept up the appearance of an even keel while actually carrying them out. If he didn't secretly find them burdensome I'd worry about his sanity. 

Back to Stephens, and the most wrongheaded line in his column:

Honors and privileges, however, do have duties. One is: Don't treat them as a burden. Another is: Don't betray the confidence of those who bestow them on you. A third is: Resignation is honorable, but the tell-all memoir against a president still in office is not. When people wonder why Mr. Obama seems to listen only to Valerie Jarrett and other hacks, maybe it's because at least he can count on their loyalty. 

This is wrongheaded in part because Gates certainly didn't write a "tell-all" memoir. At minimum, he left out the classified material to which he was privy. More than likely, there are all sorts of other things he could've written about Obama but didn't. What Stephens might have said is that it's not honorable for a cabinet secretary to offer substantial criticism of a sitting president. 

It would be convenient, for former executive-branch appointees, if that were true—if honor demanded that they refrain from criticizing the president(s) under whom they served. Their personal, professional, and patriotic loyalties would be perfectly aligned! They'd be honor-bound to refrain from criticizing the most powerful person they know, such that they would never offend his or her moneyed political allies!

As you might expect, given the incentives at play, the more pressing problem is officials who are less loyal to the people than to presidents who elevated them in the past and run political machines that might benefit them in the future. The public is denied information and candid insights as a result, even as the former officials congratulate themselves for their loyalty and discretion.

In fact, information ought to be revealed when it is in the public interest even if the presidents would rather it stay private. Former public officials ought to examine the ways in which the interests of their president (who'd prefer never to be criticized) diverges from the interests of their fellow citizens and the country itself. When divergences happen, as they always do, the interests of the people should win. This is especially so because, to borrow a phrase, presidents ought to have no reasonable expectation that they'll spared from earnest criticism, or that they're ever acting privately when they do the business of the United States of America. And if presidents are acting honorably, they're appointing their cabinet secretaries because they're the best fit for the country, not to "bestow" upon them an honor. Stephen writes as if we're living under a monarch or a beloved cult leader.

On reading the balance of Gates' memoir, perhaps I'll conclude that in a given instance he was unfair to Obama. But if so, that will be because a disclosure served no public interest, not because a retired SecDef criticizing a sitting president is verboten. I say this as someone who doesn't agree with all the critiques of Obama that Gates has offered. But they are an informed and seemingly earnest perspective, one that Americans ought to hear, reflect on and debate.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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