Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World by Robert Gates is an eye-opening perspective of national security in the United States. Gates worked for eight U.S. presidents in various positions, including Secretary of Defense. This is his attempt at explaining how presidents make decisions.
Gates’ thorough account places a lens on presidential decision-making under extreme political pressure. He dissects how presidents use the instruments of power at their disposal to achieve success, and where each president failed.
Post-Cold War America has been inundated with national security challenges to include September 11, 2001, the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, and economic rivalry with China.
First, I’ll give a summary of Gates’ book, then I’ll give my opinion of what I enjoyed, and I didn’t.
Gates begins his book by asking an important question: “How did our country go so quickly from unique global power 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?”
Several questions arise from Gates’ premise that the United States is no longer willing nor capable of assuming a global leadership role. Regardless, in Gates’s opinion, presidents must know what instruments of power they have at their disposal, which one is correct given the situation, and how to deploy each tool properly.
Gates uses the metaphor of “instruments” in his book because it accurately depicts the “symphony” in which these instruments are used. His first chapter discusses the necessary instruments of power for presidents to use.
Of those instruments, Gates includes military, economic leverage, cyber capabilities, communications, and diplomacy. Presidents can use these instruments of power in any way they choose under the National Security Council’s suggestion. The tools that presidents have favored are economic sanctions and using the military.
Gates is critical of Congress’s weakening of the State Department and the effect it has had on a president’s ability to use diplomacy. He was also critical of presidents overusing the military for missions that were not well-suited for the armed forces.
Gates praises Presidents Regan and H.W. Bush for their judicious use of these instruments of power against the Soviets and the Gulf War. He was more critical of Presidents Clinton and Obama during their tenures.
Not everything was bleak in his book. Plan Colombia was a bright spot in an otherwise ill-managed foreign policy after the Cold-War. And, Africa was another success won by presidents.
North Korea, Iraq/Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and China are all topics Gates describes as challenges for U.S. presidents.
What I liked
Gates was candid with his criticism, especially of Congress. It’s refreshing to know that Gates wasn’t holding back punches when it came to the roots of problems. He was especially annoyed Iraq and Afghanistan partly because both countries have been aggravating to presidents and leaders.
His Colombia chapter was a pleasant bright spot in U.S. foreign policy even though it didn’t accomplish everything it intended to solve. Gates was supportive of the administrations that implemented Plan Colombia, and he lauded their efforts.
Gates engaged with his audience throughout the book. Each chapter held several unanswered questions to ponder. I appreciated his analytical approach to foreign policy and even admitted where he erred in specific areas.
Even though Gates was pessimistic about America’s role in the world today, I felt like he wanted to contribute to the conversation rather than slander current and past presidents. His tone throughout the book was skeptical optimism, especially with the successes he talked about with Colombia and Africa.
What I didn’t like
Although he tried to stay unbiased, his attempt fell short. He comes from an old-republican worldview of Regan and H.W. Bush. Gates praised these men repeatedly while heavily criticizing the actions of Clinton and Obama.
That’s not to say Regan and H.W. Bush didn’t have their faults. Gates even admitted so when referring to the Iran Contra scandal.
Gates’s book is not a leisurely read. It took several weeks to comb through the details and sort out his opinions. I would use Exercise of Power as an excellent reference for a modern worldview.
Although there are frustrations with presidents using their instruments of power poorly, nothing is more aggravating than a Congress who does not provide the president with adequate options. This resource-drain that Congress has done since the end of the Cold War is Gates’s biggest frustration.
Overall, I felt like Gates did a marvelous job showing what he learned during his fifty years of public service. It was eye-opening to read about the situation room and the difficult decisions that presidents face.
Gates is a prominent public figure with many years of public service experience. He’s frustrated with Chinese expansion into the U.S. and its increasingly powerful cyber capability. Gate’s laments the Russian aggression in Crimea and Georgia without U.S. involvement.
I really enjoyed this book! I think every leader needs to know how presidents use their resources. A sitting president is an excellent example of how a leader makes decisions for better or worse. So, it’s no surprise that Exercise of Power paints a beautiful picture of the president’s decision-making process for leaders today.
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I give this book an 8/10.
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think in the comment section below. Thanks!