HH: Word of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ new memoir, Duty: Memoirs Of A Secretary At War, is roiling Washington, D.C. Joining me now, our favorite former Senator, and use to be our favorite Senator, Jon Kyl of the great state of Arizona, now with the American Enterprise Institute. Senator Kyl, welcome back, Happy New Year to you.
JK: Thanks, Happy New Year. It’s always great to be with you and your great listeners, Hugh.
HH: Well, tell me, Senator, what do you make of what you know of the new memoir by Secretary Gates?
JK: Well, it’s fascinating reading the Post, and I guess that’s the primary source have already come up with a copy, and they’re reproducing large pieces of it, which I’m reading at the moment. And it’s interesting that frankly, nothing in it surprises me. There are some inside details that of course only Gates would have knowledge of, but they ring true to me based upon other things I know. It’s just the shocking thing, I guess, is that he’s actually saying it. Now other more outspoken people have had similar revealing stories of the inside of Washington, D.C, but Gates was always a very cautious, close-minded, closed-mouthed individual, not close-minded. He very rarely criticized anybody. He certainly served both Presidents Bush and Obama as a very loyal, loyal Secretary of Defense. And so you don’t expect him to unleash what some might call a flurry of attack on those who caused him a lot of problems. But I’ve not read anything so far that surprised me in the least.
HH: Well, the Washington Post book review that is published strikes me as the response of a media establishment that’s not going to like the unfavorable comparison he makes of President Obama to President Bush, especially this line about Joe Biden. Gates writes, “I think Joe Biden has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” He accuses the Vice President of poisoning Obama’s relationship with his generals. “I thought Biden was subjecting Obama to Chinese water torture every day saying the military can’t be trusted.” That’s shocking, actually.
JK: It is. I mean, that’s the kind of thing you don’t ordinarily see a former member of the administration saying about the Vice President, somebody with whom he closely worked. But clearly, here, he’s taking off the gloves. I mean, Gates had it. I’m reading these paragraphs now about his treatment in Congress, and they’re no less very direct. He says, “I was more or less continuously outraged by the parochial self-interest of all but a very few members of Congress. I also bristled at what’s become of Congressional hearings, where rude, insulting, belittling and bullying, and all too often highly personal attacks on witnesses by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior,” and so on and so on. So he’s attacking of the sources of irritation that clearly chafed him as Secretary of Defense. But your point, you know, it’s easy to criticize Congress generally. It’s quite another to take on the Vice President of the United States. And frankly, he took on the President as well.
HH: Oh, he also says of the President’s White House staff, it’s the most centralized and controlling since the Nixon administration.
HH: And I, you know, I don’t have the book. I just have the reviews. Who knows what he said about Valerie Jarrett or Rahm Emanuel, but they’ve got to be worried about this book hitting the shelves.
JK: Well, he did specifically talk about them, and I mean, I just finished reading one piece here in which he’s talking about, “Not only were they very controlling, but they were very political.” Here’s one thing he said. “The White House staff, including chiefs of staff Rahm Emanuel and then Bill Daley, as well as such core political advisors as Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs would have a role in national security decision making that I had not previously experienced.” He says in parenthesis, which I’m sure had precedence. He talks about the politics that infused almost every decision that the President made, as well as Secretary of State Clinton. And he concludes by saying, by, well, you read the one point about no administration since Nixon.
HH: I just, I’m shocked, Senator Kyl, because this is still an administration in power. It’s a Vice President who’s still there. Gates is cutting his lines to everyone, isn’t he?
JK: Well, he’s cutting his lines to the Obama administration. The reviews that you and I are looking at don’t talk much about the Bush era. I suppose he had his concerns with some of the Bush policies, too, although very early on, what I read was that he didn’t have nearly as many concerns about Bush, because he said it was in the last two years of the Bush administration, President Bush already made his bed, he would have to lie in it, and I think Gates generally didn’t have disagreements with the basic decisions being made. And it’s clearly Gates respected the fact that Bush made his decisions based upon the international and national security issues at the time, not based on politics, whereas the Obama administration comes in, and almost everything seems to be based on politics. That’s the comparison there. So I’m sure he’s not going to be nearly as critical of Bush as he is of the Obama administration. But here’s what I take from the little bit that I’ve read, and again, you and I have to say, we’re not reading the book. We’re reading reviews. We assume that these are being accurately, that the reviews are being, recording the material accurately. Bob Gates is a very principled man. And he’s a very civil person. He believes deeply in what’s good for the country. And it bothers such people to see the low brow, uncivil, political kinds of decision making that occur in Washington, especially at the very top. And I’m sure that finally got to him. And as a result, after a respectable distance in time, he decided to let loose with his frustrations, which hopefully also contain some lessons that can be brought to bear on Washington, and perhaps turn it into a more civilized place in the future.
HH: Do you think it might help, you know, we are watching Iraq, the hard-won gains there dissolve into another civil war, and al Qaeda back. We’re watching Syria melt down, Iran get the nuke. And here, we have a memoir of a man widely respected until this week on both sides of the aisle saying this White House is a political non-stop 24/7 operation. Do you think this might help remedy that and call the American people’s attention to the fact that the President, at one point, Gates says, “As I sat there, I thought President Obama doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” Do you think it might arrest the freefall of American security?
JK: I think it’ll have an influence that in at the end of the day will be positive. Yes, this will help to unmask President Obama. His domestic policies and mistakes have already been significantly unmasked. In foreign policy, it’s beginning to happen. I mean, everything he’s done is unraveling. I mean, nothing is going right, and largely, it’s because of his disinterest or withdrawal from the world. And as a result, you know, in international and national security affairs, nature abhors a vacuum, and so does politics. And so the bad guys are happy to occupy the space that the United States used to occupy in these areas. And we will ultimately have to come back and pay a very heavy price to reengage in order to establish enough of a presence to protect our interests. That’s going to have to be somebody else’s job, or the President’s job, if it unravels quickly enough, he’s going to have to deal with it before the end of his term. But Gates’ book helps to lay the foundation for a discussion about that, that can be a sensible discussion based upon history reality, rather than some of the political falderal that frequently attends campaigns. Here is a factual description from an insider’s point of view of a very important part of the making of American history, and it bears directly not only on President Obama, but potentially two of the Democratic nominees next time, the Vice President and the former Secretary of State.
HH: Fascinating. Senator Jon Kyl, thank you for joining us on short notice from the American Enterprise Institute, the former Senator from Arizona, member of the [House Armed Services Committee] and Republican Senate [whip]. Thank you, Jon Kyl.
End of interview.