In this extract from his frank and powerful new book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, former US Secretary of Defence from 2006-11 Robert M. Gates reflects on whether he would have recommended the invasion of Iraq in 2002-3…
I was brought in to help salvage the war in Iraq and, as it turned out, to do the same in Afghanistan— in short, I was asked to wage two wars, both of them going badly when I reported for duty. When I arrived in Washington, we had already been at war in Afghanistan longer than the United States had been in World War II, and at war in Iraq longer than our participation in the Korean War. Afghanistan would become the nation’s longest foreign war, Iraq the second longest. By the end of 2006, America was sick of war. And so was Congress.
In an earlier time, people would speak of winning or losing wars. The nearly seventy years since World War II have demonstrated vividly that while wars can still be lost (Vietnam, nearly so in Iraq), “winning” has proved difficult (from Korea to the present). In December 2006, my goals in our wars were straightforward and I think relatively modest, but they still seemed nearly unattainable. As I believe I have already made clear, in Iraq, I hoped we could stabilize the country in such a way that when U.S. forces departed, the war there would not be viewed as a strategic defeat for the United States, or as a failure with global consequences; in Afghanistan, I sought only an Afghan government and army that were strong enough to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and al Qaeda from returning to use the country again as a launching pad for terror. These goals were more modest than President Bush’s, especially since I thought establishing democratic rule and effective governance in both countries would take far more time than we had. I believe my minimalist goals were achieved in Iraq and remain within reach in Afghanistan as of this writing. Had I been secretary of defense during the winter of 2002– 3, I don’t know whether I would have recommended that President Bush invade Iraq. Because I am widely characterized as being a “realist” in foreign policy— like my mentors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, both of whom opposed the invasion— many people assume I opposed the war or somehow would have prevented the debacle that followed had I been in a position of influence. But it would be disingenuous to say with ten years’ hindsight that I would have been opposed, especially since I publicly supported the decision at the time. With my CIA analyst’s background, I might have questioned the intelligence reporting on weapons of mass destruction more aggressively. Perhaps I would have made the same arguments against attempting regime change and occupying Iraq that I made before the Gulf War in 1990– 91. I certainly hope that, following the initially successful invasion, I would have been able to prevent or mitigate some of the disastrous decisions that followed. But this is all speculation on my part. What is clear ten years later, though, are the huge costs of the Iraq War. It lasted eight years, more than 4,000 American lives were lost, 35,000 troops were wounded (the number of Iraqis in both categories many times that), and it easily cost over $1 trillion. The overthrow of Saddam and the chaos that followed in Iraq eliminated Iran’s worst enemy and resulted in a significant strengthening of Tehran’s position in the region— and within Iraq itself. I cannot honestly claim I would have foreseen any or all of that.
Taken from Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by Robert M. Gates, CHAPTER 15, Reflections
You can Reserve & Collect Duty from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1eyextK), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1eydLNq) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/1fWdvZy)