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Government Executive Editor in Chief Tom Shoop, along with other editors and staff correspondents, look at the federal bureaucracy from the outside in.

Robert Gates’ Love-Hate Relationship With the Bureaucracy

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Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is making quite a splash with his new memoir, and it’s not even out yet. Commenters on the book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, have noted Gates’ highly critical assessment of President Obama, the White House national security team and members of Congress.

What has attracted less attention is the fact that the excerpts revealed thus far show that Gates had a complex relationship with institutions of government he led and the career professionals who run them on a day-to day basis.

On the one hand, Gates clearly felt that Obama was guilty of micromanaging operations and failing to respect experienced career leaders. Yesterday, Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron noted that in the book Gates “recounts frustrations with national security staff populated by think tank academics and Capitol Hill staffers, rather than bureaucrats trained to run large government institutions.”

The former Defense secretary insists he wasn’t the only one who found the Obama administration’s approach troubling. In an excerpt from the book published today in the Wall Street Journal, Gates writes, “The controlling nature of the Obama White House, and its determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work, offended Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton as much as it did me.”

At the same time, though, Gates himself was at times frustrated by the challenges of running a huge organization he viewed as in some ways inefficient and wasteful. In the excerpt, he laments that in addition to taking on administration skeptics and grandstanding members of Congress, he “had to battle the bureaucratic inertia of the Pentagon.” He also writes that he “had no problem with the White House driving policy; the bureaucracies at the State and Defense Departments rarely come up with big new ideas, so almost any meaningful change must be driven by the president and his National Security Staff.”

In the excerpt, Gates also writes of “superfluous or wasteful” Defense facilities and contracts. Such rhetoric is consistent with the views of a man who sought steep cuts in overhead spending at the Pentagon in order to preserve funding for military operations.  

In the end, Gates reserves his highest praise for members of the uniformed military and their leaders, contrasting them with the current commander in chief.  “Obama was respectful of senior officers and always heard them out, but he often disagreed with them and was deeply suspicious of their actions and recommendations,…” he writes. “I think Obama considered time spent with generals and admirals an obligation.”

Clearly, Gates’ interactions with the bureaucratic institutions of government were complex, and his relationship with his boss during the last years of his tenure was rocky. But career employees and President Obama can take solace: In the book, the former Defense chief reserves his greatest vitriol for the nation’s lawmakers.

“Congress is best viewed from a distance -- the farther the better -- because up close, it is truly ugly,” he writes. “I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.”

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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