Argument Without Argument

The more time one spends in Gates’s head, the more one is struck by the increasingly nihilistic quality of the American exceptionalist creed. Gates and his ilk remain committed to the idea that when there are problems in the world, the United States must “do something.” What is that something? It usually doesn’t matter much.

Robert M. Gates and America’s forever foreign policy

Trident missile malfunction, via Naval History and Heritage Command

Robert M. Gates. Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post–Cold War World. Knopf, 2020.

Robert M. Gates was born in 1943 in Wichita, Kansas and joined the Central Intelligence Agency twenty-three years later. He became a lieutenant in the US Air Force in 1967; served for nine years on the National Security Council; and served as deputy national security adviser, as deputy director and director of central intelligence, and as secretary of defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the only defense secretary in history to serve consecutively under two Presidents. To describe Gates as part of the foreign-policy establishment that emerged after World War II is to understate the case. Having been ensconced for decades in the national security state, his very person embodies that establishment.

In the years since he left the Department of Defense in 2011, Gates has written a memoir (Duty) and a work of “leadership studies” passionlessly titled A Passion for Leadership. His latest book, Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post–Cold War World, was published in June 2020, as American failures—from the Covid-19 pandemic response to the plague of police violence against civilians to the never-ending disaster in Afghanistan—accumulated and any different path forward allegedly rested on the election of a senescent 77-year-old institutionalist. Unlike its more straightforward predecessors, Exercise of Power is a curious and circuitous text, full of withering assessments of recent US foreign policy catastrophes even as it remains fatally encumbered by Gates’s own position as both longtime insider and true believer. It is a book of, and for, its era—a moment when American elites are chastened by the nation’s many self-inflicted crises but unwilling or unable to come to terms with the implications of their failures.

“How did our country go so quickly from unique global power,” Gates asks, “to a country that is widely perceived as no longer willing to bear the costs or accept the responsibility of global leadership—or even capable of governing itself effectively?” His answer is simple, and partially correct: post–cold war Presidents and members of Congress alike have failed “to understand the complexity of American power, both in its expansiveness and in its limitations.” During the cold war, Gates writes, US leaders appreciated the importance of “nonmilitary assets”—diplomacy, economic sanctions, development assistance, propaganda—to exercising power. But once the Soviet Union collapsed, many of those same leaders, high on their own supply of unilateral hubris and unburdened by existential anxieties about inadvertently sparking World War III—began to view the military as the tool to transform the world. For this reason, they foolishly proffered military solutions to nonmilitary problems.

Gates considers it crucial for American leaders to reform their ways. But for all his perspicacity, he cannot depart from the shibboleths about the US empire—or what he euphemistically terms “American leadership”—that have guided and defined his life, a life coterminous with this empire’s greatest expansion. Like many members of the foreign policy establishment, Gates cannot imagine nor countenance a world in which the United States abandons some of its power (and some of its sovereignty) to address the actual problems of the 21st century. Instead, Gates’s world is filled with monsters that only American power can destroy.

Nothing can shake Gates’s conviction that global peace and prosperity rest on the United States remaining the prime military, political, economic, and cultural power. To read Gates is thus to confront an elegist unaware that he’s mourning. The imperial project to which Gates dedicated his life has failed, but in his dotage he remains unable to imagine another one. And he’s not alone: Joe Biden’s appointment of Tony Blinken as secretary of state and Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense suggests that the most recent geriatric to become President agrees with the former secretary. It is for this reason that Exercise of Power is worth taking seriously: it may very well provide a blueprint for the Biden Administration’s foreign policy. As history has shown time and again, the failure of a bad idea does not mean that it’s stripped of its power.

For the politicians, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and generals who constructed the so-called American Century, it was crucial that US “leadership” wouldn’t be exclusively enforced with violence. While decision-makers always intended US primacy to rest on the strength of the military and the dollar, they also hoped it could become at least somewhat consensual. As such, midcentury policymakers created institutions like the United Nations (to provide countries with a forum to express their opinions), the International Monetary Fund (to encourage financial stability and growth), the World Bank (to reconstruct Western Europe), and the US Agency for International Development (to provide foreign aid). Though the United States committed manifold crimes during the cold war—overthrowing foreign governments, initiating deadly wars, funding dictators—American elites nonetheless maintained that legitimate world leadership rested on providing for the global commons. For this reason, they were sometimes, if not always, reluctant to wantonly deploy armed force.

After the cold war, however, decision-makers began to insist that the US “victory” definitively revealed two things: first, that liberal democratic capitalism was the only viable system of political economy; and second, that the United States was the engine of world history. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright crystallized the beliefs of the national security establishment when she declared in a 1998 interview on The Today Show that America was “the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” When coupled with the post–Gulf War “Revolution in Military Affairs”—the idea that technological developments had made war both easier to win and more humane—these exceptionalist convictions encouraged politicians and defense officials alike to regularly intervene abroad.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the United States provided the majority of force for interventions in Panama (to topple Manual Noriega); Iraq (to force the nation’s withdrawal from Kuwait); Somalia (to assist local aid workers); Bosnia (to support anti-Serb forces on the ground); Haiti (to reinstall Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president); Kosovo (to halt Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign); and Sudan (to attack al-Qaeda). After the September 11 attacks, the nation pushed the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi out of power. It goes without saying that many of these interventions ended in disaster. To take only the most recent examples: the United States remains stuck in Afghanistan, Iraq remains unstable, and Libya remains mired in violence and has even witnessed the return of slave markets.

Gates appreciates that post–cold war US foreign policy was, to put it mildly, catastrophic, even as he insists that the United States should continue to dominate the world. Why? Because no amount of history or reason can overcome his—and by extension the foreign policy establishment’s—pseudo-religious commitment to American exceptionalism. This leads to often incongruous arguments, as when Gates notes that his nation regularly “worked with despotic (often murderous) governments” as he simultaneously maintains that “America must lead” because it’s the only country able “to ensure that authoritarianism, twice defeated in the 20th century, does not prevail in the 21st.”

Like most members of the so-called foreign policy blob, Gates at once acknowledges criticism of this position without taking such criticism especially seriously. That his critics are the people he’s supposed to serve doesn’t, in his mind, strengthen the opposition’s case. “Americans,” he admits, “have long wanted to just mind our own business and be left alone.” But according to Gates, and for that matter nearly everyone involved with American foreign policy at a high level, this is a wrong-headed view that policymakers must ignore and overcome. To the extent that he supports educating the public about foreign policy, Gates envisions a top-down affair in which Presidents “develop a foreign policy that [they] can persuade the public to support and then patiently, repeatedly, educat[e] the citizenry as to why that policy is necessary and deserving of support.” A democratic exchange this is not.

But as Exercise of Power itself repeatedly demonstrates, Presidents—and the experts who provide them with intellectual ballast—have themselves failed to institute wise foreign policies. The worst foreign policy disasters of the post-1945 period—Korea, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya—were supported by “the best and the brightest” ensconced in Washington DC. Clearly, the only way to prevent further destruction is for US foreign policy to become more, not less, democratic by developing mechanisms to incorporate meaningfully the will of ordinary Americans into the foreign policymaking process. Gates, of course, isn’t interested in such reforms, and his faith in US righteousness and belief in the wisdom of his cohort prevent him from questioning the fundamental idea that has served as his life’s lodestone and from which all US foreign policy tragedies have sprung: “that our long-term self-interest demands that we continue to accept the burden of global leadership.”

If Exercise of Power has one overriding concern, it’s the ascent of China. Gates does not discount the crises the 21st century has already wrought—climate change, global inequality, pandemics, and other transnational challenges—but like the former and current President and leaders in both the Democratic and Republican parties, he insists that the People’s Republic of China is the predominant geopolitical problem of our era. Gates avows that a so-called new cold war will erupt between the United States and China, if it hasn’t already. Like the old cold war, the new one will not be a battle between geopolitical rivals with divergent but legitimate interests, but a Manichean struggle between democracy and totalitarianism, a mostly useless term popularized after World War II to describe the ideologically opposite but (supposedly) similar statist regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and thus manufacture consent for the nascent cold war. Though Gates doesn’t think a hot war will erupt between the United States and China—he continually, and vaguely, refers to US-PRC “competition”—he presents this competition as essentially permanent.

This dualistic framing of international relations has an ignoble history. Manichean wars (or, if you like, Manichean “competitions”) have tended to be endless and to serve few people but the defense contractors, lobbyists, and think-tank analysts who profit from them. And in retrospect, it appears that Americans have tended to project their own peculiar, millenarian, and universalist beliefs—beliefs that emerge from the Puritan substrate that permeates American politics—onto foreign powers that did not share them. Beginning with the doctrine of containment laid out by the State Department’s George Kennan in his famous “Long Telegram” of February 1946, and continuing into the cold war and post–cold war eras, American elites have insisted that their perceived enemies—first the Bolsheviks and now the Chinese—shared their longing to dominate the world. Ironically, however, neither the Soviet Union nor the People’s Republic of China ever expressed any sincere desire—or, more important, taken any sincere actions—to rule the globe as the United States has done. Today, for example, China has only one overseas military base in Djibouti, compared to the United States’ seven hundred and fifty. These are simply not comparable.

There is little doubt that China desires to be the most powerful player in East Asia and will do everything it can to protect its access to foreign markets and raw materials. But these aspirations and goals are a far cry from the truly global, extra-hemispheric hegemony sought and achieved by the United States after World War II. Gates, though, elides the differences, and therefore considers any of China’s attempts to affirm its regional authority, or to improve its international bargaining power (by, for example creating institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) as direct attacks on US interests. As American foreign policymakers have done for decades, Gates presents the entire world as a vital US interest—an intellectual framework perfectly suited to encouraging long, fruitless wars like the new cold war for which he so desperately yearns.

Ironically for an avowed American exceptionalist, Gates worries that the nature of “Chinese authoritarian state capitalism” provides the country with significant advantages in a geopolitical competition with the United States. Unlike his own country, which is hampered by its free-market ideology, China “can direct both its massive state-owned enterprises and its banks to allocate large sums of money and people to specific initiatives and leverage its economic power both to promise great benefits for working with China or to bring great pressure on governments that oppose or try to thwart its policies.” Gates inquires as to whether “a democracy, unable to compel its companies to invest abroad, [can] compete . . . with authoritarian state capitalism?”

In asking this question, Gates unwittingly attaches himself to a transatlantic tradition dating back to the 1930s. During that decade, the rise of fascism compelled a generation of thinkers, from Kennan to Hans Speier, to worry about the so-called “totalitarian advantage” enjoyed by autocratic regimes. According to these intellectuals, the dictatorial and centralized nature of “totalitarian” states made them better able to mobilize and disburse resources than cumbersome and bureaucratic democracies. As such, over the course of midcentury intellectuals became increasingly anxious that democracies would lose any wars fought against authoritarians unless they undertook drastic measures.

Whereas midcentury elites, informed by New Deal–era politics, focused on building state and parastate institutions—the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the US Agency for International Development, the RAND Corporation, and so on—to mitigate this perceived disadvantage, Gates, who came of age during neoliberalism’s ascendance in the 1970s and 1980s, when many of the aforementioned institutions were augmented with private actors like the Heritage Foundation and Chemonics, highlights the importance of the private sector. For example, he praises President Donald Trump’s International Development Finance Corporation, which was created in 2018 “to finance private development projects” and thus “counter China’s investments in other countries by providing financially sound alternatives to state-led projects.” Ever a product of his times, Gates maintains that the primary way the US government will overcome China’s attempt to develop the Global South is by tightening the already-close relationship between capital and the national security state, regardless of the damage that such connections have historically wrought in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. As always, Gates remains in thrall to the failed policies of the past.

The first cold war diverted money from welfare to weapons; encouraged domestic oppression; destroyed the American left; brought the world to the brink of nuclear war; and, most important, resulted in the deaths and deracination of tens of millions of people throughout the globe. It was a low point in human history that should have highlighted to elite and ordinary Americans alike the dangers of maximalist, Manichean thinking. There is no reason to believe a new cold war would be any less of a tragedy. That Gates, a prominent and much-admired dean of the foreign policy establishment, is committed to such reckless and atavistic thinking—and the reckless and atavistic policy that flows from it—tells us much about what we are likely to see in a Biden Administration. The cold war is over, but for many of our foreign policymakers it never ended.

For all his emphasis on nonmilitary tools and “soft power,” Gates offers no meaningful departure from the militarist consensus that has long defined US foreign policy. Because we can’t possibly know the character of future war, Gates argues that “our military forces must be trained and equipped to have the greatest possible versatility across the broadest possible spectrum of conflict.” The military should be able “to defeat the most technologically advanced nation-states as well as nonstate actors (such as ISIL, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban) and still provide security assistance and training in underdeveloped countries.” As these statements reveal, when national security elites have access to a military hammer, all international challenges begin to look like nails, especially in a country where the State Department’s budget is hundreds of billions of dollars less than the Defense Department’s. It almost goes without saying that the permanent—and wildly expansive— mobilization Gates calls for is a recipe for permanent war.

One of the many problems with permanent mobilization is that the US military is ultimately controlled by one person: the President. To borrow a phrase coined by the historian Harold M. Barger, the American presidency is an “impossible” one—nobody can fulfill its ever-more complicated and expanding duties. As Gates himself notes, the President “sit[s] at the bottom of a funnel, at the wide top of which are more than three million men and women in and out of uniform in a dozen or more departments and agencies engaged in helping to formulate American foreign and national security policies or in implementing them.” Additionally, the United States has “interests” in every world region, each of which has its own complex history. No individual can possibly know what’s going on in their own bureaucracy, let alone throughout the world, and make the responsible “life-and-death decisions” the American President is supposed to. Gates seems to believe this system could function if the office was occupied by someone intelligent, as opposed to a dotard like Trump. But this is wishful thinking, as Barack Obama’s disastrous Libyan intervention, as well as his other bad choices, make clear. It is simply impossible for any single individual to effectively and morally wield so much power.

The majority of Exercise of Power is dedicated to drawing lessons from the recent history of US foreign policy. Despite his blinkered worldview, Gates gets a number of things right. Most important, he implores policymakers to ask themselves the following questions before they deploy military force:

Are core US national interests or those of our allies threatened? What other countries are willing and able to help us? What is the legal basis for intervening? Are our objectives realistic? Is the intervention time-limited? What is the potential cost in lives and treasure? What is the level of support in Congress and among the public? What are possible unintended consequences? What can go wrong?

Inspired by earlier military thinkers like Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, Gates correctly insists that “the bar for use of our military for purposes short of protecting our vital interests and those of our allies should be a high one.” The question, however, is who gets to define what “vital interests” are; as post-1945 US history has demonstrated, the elites who manipulate the levers of power usually define these interests quite capaciously, especially when their career advancement depends on maintaining the American empire. Put another way, as long as US foreign policymaking remains highly undemocratic, then Gates’ prescription will do little to stem the tide of endless war.

Gates also rightly reserves particular ire for “nation-building,” the process of using military and nonmilitary power to engender social, political, economic, and cultural transformation in foreign countries. He argues that recent experiences in Haiti, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq suggest that nation-building usually “involve[s] a serious mismatch between responsibilities and resources.” First, soldiers, who are the ones tasked with nation-building on the ground, are generally not trained to do so and thus often fail at their job. Second, it is extremely difficult to coordinate the manifold agencies involved in nation-building, which impels counterproductive bureaucratic turf wars. Finally, nation-building requires altering a society’s entire way of life, which is a generations-long project virtually impossible to achieve absent a lengthy, expansive, and brutal military occupation.

Ultimately, Gates blames the failures of nation-building—especially in Afghanistan and Iraq—on the fact that “America’s singular power in every dimension after the end of the cold war . . . obscured for our leaders the reality of very real limitations to that power. It tempted [Bill] Clinton, [George W.] Bush, and even Obama to think we could change other countries, despite history and culture, and make them more like us.” (According to an unpublished working paper written by the political scientists Sidita Kushi and Monica Duffy Toft of Tufts University’s Military Intervention Project, since 1776 the United States has undertaken over five hundred military interventions, with over 25 percent of these interventions occurring in the post–cold war era.) As such, Gates implicitly if unknowingly argues that the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were not only responses to the September 11 attacks, but were also manifestations of the “End of History” discourse that permeated elite culture in the 1990s and 2000s. In this framing, September 11 was merely the proximate excuse US leaders needed to enact long-held plans to transform the world—an argument bolstered by the fact that it was Clinton who, in 1998, signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which declared that it was US policy to topple Saddam Hussein.

Though Gates is right to be skeptical of nation-building, his skepticism emerges from a racialized solipsism that fails to consider the historical, structuring conditions of international relations. For example, he notes that despite the United States’ use of military force and foreign aid to stabilize and develop Somalia, in the past three decades the Somalis have remained mired in conflict. According to Gates, no matter what the United States does, nothing in that “dysfunctional country” will change “until the Somalis themselves figure out how to stop killing each other.”1

Gates here blames Somalia’s problems on its own people and offers no historical explanation for the country’s present state. He doesn’t, for instance, address the fact that the area that comprises present day Somalia was colonized by the British, French, Italians, and Egyptians. More important, he ignores that it was the United States that provided substantial financial support to Siad Barre, the dictator whose oppressive rule helped spark the civil war that engulfed Somalia in the 1990s. Ironically for a trained historian (Gates received a PhD in Russian and Soviet History from Georgetown University), he exists in an eternal now in which the structuring conditions of the past have little influence on the present.

Gates’ disinterest in history is crucial because it forces his gaze away from the fundamental cause of many of the modern world’s problems: the last five centuries of North Atlantic dominance, colonialism, and exploitation, all of which engendered the oppressive structures of exchange and interaction that make some countries very wealthy and most countries very poor. To make the world safer and more prosperous—not only for Americans, but for everyone—one has to transform these structures themselves. If the past seventy-five years of US hegemony have demonstrated anything, it’s that no single country can ever force global peace and prosperity. These will only be achieved when all nations—the great powers first among them—abandon elements of their sovereignty and develop plans to more fairly distribute the resources that have long been hoarded by the elites of a small number of countries. Absent such redistribution, the world will remain in its traditional state of perpetual anarchy.

The most compelling parts of Exercise of Power concern Gates’ descriptions of the foreign policy bureaucracy’s inner workings. Anti-imperialists would be wise to take Gates’ analysis seriously, as the successful implementation of a left-wing foreign policy will rest on effectively manipulating, and ultimately transforming, the machinery of state. We learn, for example, that it’s not only a chronic lack of funding that has attenuated the State Department’s influence on foreign policy. Instead, most Presidents have ignored the State Department because they considered it “some kind of alien entity within [their] administration” and were further able to use modern communications technologies to talk directly with their foreign counterparts. As such, Gates affirms that over the past several decades “ambassadors and embassies [have] play[ed] little role in policy decisions.” As calls to refund the State Department gain more and more traction within Washington DC, those of us who want to reinvigorate American diplomacy must consider the diverse factors that limit State’s impact and appreciate that money won’t solve all the department’s problems.

Gates is also very critical of Congress, which he maintains has forced “a bunch of expensive programs” on an unwilling Defense Department. “Both Republicans and Democrats,” the former secretary laments, “cannot abide the thought of a single Defense program in their state or district being cut by a dollar, [which means] the department is . . . stuck with paying for a significant number of bases and facilities—probably 25 percent of the total—it neither wants nor needs.”

To decrease military spending, then, anti-imperialists will need to provide workable and compelling alternatives to the military Keynesianism that has supported so many communities throughout the United States. In this, they might look to make common cause with soldiers, sailors, airwomen and airmen, and marines. As Gates underlines, “the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms, partly because they have seen up close the cost of war in lives broken and lost, and partly because they fear, with good reason, that if things don’t go well the politicians will abandon them and whatever fight the president has started.” Put simply, the left must cultivate the military; it’s one of our most powerful potential constituencies. This is especially true given that the Defense Department, as Gates highlights, “has two seats at the President’s table—the secretary [of defense] and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—an arrangement replicated at every level of the interagency process.”

Throughout Exercise of Power, Gates underlines the primacy of domestic politics in determining US foreign policy. Take, for instance, his discussion of US-Colombian relations. Here, the former secretary declares that “fatalistic” American officials enacted pointless anti-drug policies, such as “whack-a-mole seizures of illegal drugs by the Drug Enforcement Agency,” because these were “necessitated” by “domestic politics and policy.” He even connects Clinton’s October 1998 decision to initiate Plan Colombia to the President’s desire to distract from ongoing impeachment proceedings and gin up support for the Democrats in the midterm elections. These and other examples are crucial reminders that parochial concerns oftentimes play a key role in foreign policymaking and that transforming the US approach to the world will rely on transforming American domestic politics itself.

Ironically given that Obama’s two major foreign policy achievements—the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the opening to Cuba—were diplomatic in nature, Gates remains tied to the idea that defending America’s “vital interests” necessitates constantly intervening in the affairs of foreign countries. This comes through vividly in his discussion of Iran. According to Gates, despite its relative weakness vis-à-vis the United States, Iran remains a serious threat. For this reason, “the US goal must be a change in regime that arises from the Iranian people themselves.” To help force this change, he recommends that decision-makers use overt and covert means to inform Iranians “of specific abuses by their government and to convey our support for their efforts to increase pressure on the regime.”

It is clear that Gates has not thought through the implications of this suggestion. Here, history provides a guide. In early 1953, the US government encouraged unhappy workers in East Germany to rebel against the ruling Socialist Unity Party and, by extension, the Soviet Union. Partially as the result of this encouragement, in June protests erupted throughout the German Democratic Republic. The United States was shocked at this outcome, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, unwilling to risk World War III, refused to support the rebels. As a result, the Soviet military quickly quashed the uprising and further clamped down on East Germany. Absent massive US weapons transfers—which are very unlikely—it’s difficult to imagine a similar scenario playing out any differently in modern-day Iran.

Like most members of the foreign policy establishment, Gates is obsessed with Iran because he fears it might one day achieve a nuclear breakout that will threaten Israel, the centerpiece of US strategy in the Middle East. This is, of course, a genuine anxiety, but then again, it’s worth questioning whether or not that breakout would encourage or discourage peace. A major reason the United States felt comfortable toppling Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was because neither Iraq nor Libya had nuclear weapons. In contrast, the United States will never invade North Korea because the country recently acquired nuclear capabilities. It’s thus possible that a nuclear Iran would encourage peace by making it unlikely that the United States would attack it. It is obvious that promoting nuclear proliferation is a very dangerous proposition that increases the risks of both accidental and planned nuclear wars. Still, for the foreseeable future, an anti-imperial policy might ironically be synonymous with a pro-nuclear proliferation one. To put it even more starkly, in order to save lives, it might be necessary for other countries to develop the capabilities to defend against us.

The more time one spends in Gates’s head, the more one is struck by the increasingly nihilistic quality of the American exceptionalist creed. Gates and his ilk remain committed to the idea that when there are problems in the world, the United States must “do something.” What is that something? It usually doesn’t matter much. In his discussion of Syria, for instance, Gates notes that “there is little assurance” that anything the United States could have done “would have made a significant difference” in the civil war. Nevertheless, he declares that something “should have been tried.” Why? Because the United States is the global leader.

This is argument without argument, made by a person who doesn’t feel the need to rationalize American action in the world. Gates’s claims reflect power shorn of any substantial justificatory logic, which, ironically, is a defining feature of the post–cold war American Empire that the former secretary spends Exercise of Power lambasting. The original Wilsonian case for American domination, which was that US hegemony would benefit everyone, is barely even made. Now, the United States acts because it’s the United States. Liberal internationalism, in short, has become a zombie ideology thoughtlessly consuming the world.

Like Gates—and like the previous four Presidents—the United States’ new President has been raised completely in the era of US Empire, and it’s highly unlikely that he will be willing to criticize its foundational assumptions. The same is true of many of his younger advisers, who ascended to their positions by flattering the sensibilities of those in power. Would a President Harris upend the order Robert M. Gates has worked so hard to defend and cultivate? A President Buttigieg? One closes Exercise of Power desperately hoping that it is the last book of its kind and that Gates is the last of an aging breed. But as recent events have indicated, this is, tragically, a naive hope. For the moment, at least, the Empire is here to stay.

  1. Elsewhere, Gates refers to Afghanistan as a “primitive” and “staggeringly backward nation,” in which “corruption oozed from every pore.” 

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