Steve Chapman

Robert Gates may be the only CIA director or defense secretary who ever took part in peace demonstrations during the Vietnam War. In his 1996 memoir -- the one nobody noticed -- he says that in 1970, as a young CIA employee and Air Force veteran, he marched in Washington to protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

"I and virtually all of my friends and acquaintances in CIA were opposed to the war and to any prolonged strategy for extracting us," he recalls, with no evident regret.

Gates has been a durable pillar of the U.S. national security apparatus, serving under eight presidents. Heading the Pentagon under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he had the task of bringing success out of stalemate in military engagements someone else started, and he did his best. But under his hawkish exterior, the antiwar impulse has never gone away.

If you're circulating a petition to invade this country or bomb that one, don't bother asking Gates. In his new book, "Duty," he has little good to say about most past or prospective decisions to initiate hostilities.

Despite his Republican credentials and service under Bush, he shows little enthusiasm for his crusading foreign policy. "I thought Bush's freedom agenda as publicly presented was too simplistic," he writes. The administration's goals in Afghanistan were "embarrassingly ambitious (and historically naive) when compared to the meager human and financial resources committed to the task."

Gates, who acknowledges supporting the 2003 Iraq invasion, harbors an abundance of second thoughts. Lamenting its "huge costs" in money and lives and the chaos it produced, he says it also "resulted in a significant strengthening of Tehran's position in the region -- and in Iraq itself."

He argues that the Iraq war undermined our efforts in Afghanistan by diverting resources and attention. He concludes that it "will always be tainted by the harsh reality that the public premise for invasion -- Iraqi possession of chemical and biological weapons as well as an active nuclear program -- was wrong."

Gates was equally dubious when, under Obama, he heard calls for other wars. He lobbied against the 2011 intervention in Libya, believing its civil war "was not a vital national interest of the United States. I opposed the United States attacking a third Muslim country within a decade to bring about regime change. ... I worried about how overstretched and tired our military was, and the possibility of a protracted conflict in Libya." He often asked his colleagues, "Can I just finish the two wars we're already in before you go looking for new ones?"

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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