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Initial impressions of Robert Gates' "Exercise of Power"

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

Robert Gates has dedicated most of his life to government service. He started in the US Air Force and then worked his way up to the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President George HW Bush. He took a hiatus from government service and turned to academia- first as a traveling lecturer until Texas A&M University hired him as a Dean and later President of the university. President George W. Bush nominated Gates to be his Secretary of Defense and was retained by President Barack Obama (a rare occurrence for a cabinet member.) All told, Mr. Robert Gates has served eight presidents from both political parties. His latest book in a reflection on what exactly is power in our current world, his judgement on how well or poorly presidents harnessed the awesome power of the United States, and why those chose to act in some circumstances but not others. I'm a third of the way through the book and overall, really enjoy his thoughtful analysis as he extrapolates lessons learned from events he recounts.

Two minor criticisms. First, Mr. Gates is incredibly experienced and really lets the reader know it, which can be off-putting for some as he is prone to "humblebrags". I personally believe it is more of him setting the stage and establishing his "bona fides" in an age of social media in which everyone claims to be an expert. Second, he implies many others that write memoirs are don't truly understand how to synchronize the use of national power and only write to protect their legacy. I think he occasionally falls into a similar trap of trying to "set the record straight" about certain complex events. Overall, Mr. Gates' intel analyst experience and recent academic background serves him well in the book as he describes both sides of complex issues/decisions, along with his role in them.

In the prologue, Gates strongly disagrees that power is solely defined in terms of coercions or submission. His first chapter is aptly titled "The Symphony of Power" as he details the different instruments of national power: Military, Diplomacy, Economic Leverage, Cyber Capabilities, Development Assistance, Communications, Intelligence, Alliances, Science and Technology, Culture, Ideology, The Private Sector, Religion, and Nationalism. What interested me more was that he ends the first chapter by prioritizing Wise and Courageous Leadership because:

"It is essential to the effectiveness of all forces of power. Those who exercise such leadership know which instruments of power to use and when;

they are maestros of the symphony."

In the next chapter, "Exercising Power", Gates challenges the traditional imagery of the president as a leader standing on top of the organizational pyramid and issuing orders. Instead, he believes the president is "sitting at the bottom of a funnel" and at the wide top is the millions of men and women in government service engaged in formulating or implementing policies. The risky/tough/complex issues keep falling down the funnel to the next senior leader until they finally land on the president's desk. That is why Mr. Gates emphasizes the president as a maestro. While they have awesome instruments of power to use, the president needs all the different departments and agencies-the symphony-to play true to their role. If not, you will have discordant reverberations across the federal government and potentially even other nation states. Gates ends his second chapter with a bold accusation:

"...structures and procedures designed for the exercise of power during the Cold War

and a simpler time are no longer adequate for the more complicated and more technologically advanced post- Cold War world."

Thanks for reading Part I of my three-part review of Robert Gates' Exercise of Power! Mr. Gates concisely lays out his argument for what power is and turns the normal leader model on its head- leaders get funneled information and problems, they are not at the top of the pyramid giving the orders to the thoughtless bureaucracy. I love his analogy of leaders as symphony conductors who harmonize their organizations. Gates spends the majority of his book discussion historical events categorized by country and evaluates the decisions made by the sitting president at that time. For Part II, I will pick 2-3 historical vignettes to highlight. My biggest questions going into the middle of the book is how, given his half century in government service, would he change the federal system that is governed by laws and historical precedents? And does Mr. Gates think he could have made a better decision in the situations he describes?

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