Robert Gates Hits Obama, Biden, Clinton In New Book, But Will Americans Care?
A new book by former SecDef Robert Gates is making political waves in Washington power circles, but will it matter to ordinary Americans?
Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense in the final two years of the Bush Administration and then, at the request of then President-Elect Obama, stayed on the job for two and a half years (a year longer than he originally intended), serving in the same position until July 2011, right up through such events as the surge of troops into Afghanistan and the raid into Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Throughout this time, it appeared from the outside that Gates had an excellent working relationship not only with the President, but also with Vice-President Biden and fellow national security officials such as Secretary Hillary Clinton. Indeed, when Gates left office on July 1, 2011, he did so to widespread praise not only from the President, but from pretty much all of official Washington. Specifically, Gates was hailed as an example of the kind of bipartisan cooperation we rarely see in Washington today, a Republican serving not only serving in a Democratic Administration, but serving in one of the two most important Cabinet positions when it comes to National Security issues. Now, though, that bipartisanship is likely to be called into question with the imminent release of Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Gates’s new book detailing the nearly five years that Gates spent at the head of the Pentagon. The book, of course, discusses the two and a half years of his tenure under George W. Bush, but its what he has to say about the others two and a half years under President Obama that are drawing the most attention.
The Washington Post’s perennial insider Bob Woodward was up with a pre-publication report on the book late yesterday:
In a new memoir, former defense secretary Robert Gates unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war, writing that by early 2010 he had concluded the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”
Obama, after months of contentious discussion with Gates and other top advisers, deployed 30,000 more troops in a final push to stabilize Afghanistan before a phased withdrawal beginning in mid-2011. “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” Gates writes.
As a candidate, Obama had made plain his opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion while embracing the Afghanistan war as a necessary response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, requiring even more military resources to succeed. In Gates’s highly emotional account, Obama remains uncomfortable with the inherited wars and distrustful of the military that is providing him options. Their different worldviews produced a rift that, at least for Gates, became personally wounding and impossible to repair.
In a statement Tuesday evening, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Obama “deeply appreciates Bob Gates’ service as Secretary of Defense, and his lifetime of service to our country.”
“As has always been the case, the President welcomes differences of view among his national security team, which broaden his options and enhance our policies,” Hayden said in the statement. “The President wishes Secretary Gates well as he recovers from his recent injury, and discusses his book.” Gates fractured his first vertebra last week in a fall at his home in Washington state.
Gates, a Republican, writes about Obama with an ambivalence that he does not resolve, praising him as “a man of personal integrity” even as he faults his leadership. Though the book simmers with disappointment in Obama, it reflects outright contempt for Vice President Biden and many of Obama’s top aides.
Biden is accused of “poisoning the well” against the military leadership. Thomas Donilon, initially Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and then-Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the White House coordinator for the wars, are described as regularly engaged in “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.”
In her statement, Hayden said Obama “disagrees with Secretary Gates’ assessment” of the vice president.
“From his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America’s leadership in the world,” Hayden said. “President Obama relies on his good counsel every day.”
Gates is 70, nearly 20 years older than Obama. He has worked for every president going back to Richard Nixon, with the exception of Bill Clinton. Throughout his government career, he was known for his bipartisan detachment, the consummate team player. “Duty” is likely to provide ammunition for those who believe it is risky for a president to fill such a key Cabinet post with a holdover from the opposition party.
He writes, “I have tried to be fair in describing actions and motivations of others.” He seems well aware that Obama and his aides will not see it that way.
While serving as defense secretary, Gates gave Obama high marks, saying privately in the summer of 2010 that the president is “very thoughtful and analytical, but he is also quite decisive.” He added, “I think we have a similar approach to dealing with national security issues.”
Obama echoed Gates’s comments in a July 10, 2010, interview for my book “Obama’s Wars.” The president said: “Bob Gates has, I think, served me extraordinarily well. And part of the reason is, you know, I’m not sure if he considers this an insult or a compliment, but he and I actually think a lot alike, in broad terms.”
During that interview, Obama said he believed he “had garnered confidence and trust in Gates.” In “Duty,” Gates complains repeatedly that confidence and trust were what he felt was lacking in his dealings with Obama and his team. “Why did I feel I was constantly at war with everybody, as I have detailed in these pages?” he writes. “Why was I so often angry? Why did I so dislike being back in government and in Washington?”
His answer is that “the broad dysfunction in Washington wore me down, especially as I tried to maintain a public posture of nonpartisan calm, reason and conciliation.”
WASHINGTON — After ordering a troop increase in Afghanistan, President Obama eventually lost faith in the strategy, his doubts fed by White House advisers who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing, according to his former defense secretary Robert M. Gates.
In a new memoir, Mr. Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served for two years under Mr. Obama, praises the president as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats.” But Mr. Gates says that by 2011, Mr. Obama began criticizing — sometimes emotionally — the way his policy in Afghanistan was playing out.
At a pivotal meeting in the situation room in March 2011, called to discuss the withdrawal timetable, Mr. Obama opened with a blast of frustration — expressing doubts about Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander he had chosen, and questioning whether he could do business with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
“As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” Mr. Gates wrote. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”
“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” is the first book describing the Obama administration’s policy deliberations written from inside the cabinet. Mr. Gates offers 600 pages of detailed history of his personal wars with Congress, the Pentagon bureaucracy and, in particular, Mr. Obama’s White House staff. He wrote that the “controlling nature” of the staff “took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level.”
Mr. Gates describes his running policy battles within Mr. Obama’s inner circle, among them Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Tom Donilon, who served as national security adviser; and Douglas E. Lute, the Army lieutenant general who managed Afghan policy issues at the time.
Mr. Gates calls Mr. Biden “a man of integrity,” but questions his judgment. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Mr. Gates writes. He has high praise for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served as secretary of state when he was at the Pentagon and was a frequent ally on national security issues.
But Mr. Gates does say that, in defending her support for the Afghan surge, she confided that her opposition to Mr. Bush’s Iraq surge when she was in the Senate and a presidential candidate “had been political,” since she was facing Mr. Obama, then an antiwar senator, in the Iowa primary. In the same conversation, Mr. Obama “conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political,” Mr. Gates recalls. “To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”
Mr. Gates discloses that he almost quit in September 2009 after a dispute-filled meeting to assess the way ahead in Afghanistan, including the number of troops that were needed. “I was deeply uneasy with the Obama White House’s lack of appreciation — from the top down — of the uncertainties and unpredictability of war,” he recalls. “I came closer to resigning that day than at any other time in my tenure.”
Although it’s not getting nearly as much attention as his criticisms of the Obama Administration and its players, Gates is also critical of George W. Bush and his Administration’s final two years in office:
Mr. Gates is a bipartisan critic of the two presidents he served as defense secretary. He holds the George W. Bush administration responsible for misguided policy that squandered the early victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, although he credits Mr. Bush with ordering a troop surge in Iraq that averted collapse of the mission.
And he says that only he and Mr. Bush’s second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, pressed forcefully to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, with little result.
Also, despite his criticism, Gates does express support for some of the President’s most consequential foreign policy decision:
Mr. Gates acknowledges that he initially opposed sending Special Operations forces to attack a housing compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. Mr. Gates writes that Mr. Obama’s approval for the Navy SEAL mission, despite strong doubts that Bin Laden was even there, was “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”
In his final chapter, Mr. Gates makes clear his verdict on the president’s overall Afghan strategy: “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”
The White House rejected the criticism of Biden, while arguing that Obama appreciated different views from his national security team.
“Deliberations over our policy on Afghanistan have been widely reported on over the years, and it is well known that the president has been committed to achieving the mission of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, while also ensuring that we have a clear plan for winding down the war, which will end this year,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.
“The President deeply appreciates Bob Gates’ service as Secretary of Defense and his life,” the statement continued. “As has always been the case, the President welcomes differences of view among his national security team, which broaden his options and enhance our policies.”
On Biden, Hayden said the president “disagrees with Secretary Gates’ assessment – from his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America’s leadership in the world.
“President Obama relies on his good counsel every day,” the statement said.
Quite obviously, the revelations have been getting a lot of coverage from the usual sources since the Post and Times pieces hit the web late afternoon, and they’re likely to be a subject of conversation on this coming weekend’s Sunday shows, and then into next week as Gates himself begins making he media rounds starting with an appearance Monday morning on NBC’s Today show. No doubt, they are also being discussed all over official Washington as pundits what they mean for both the future of the Obama Administration and, of course the 2016 campaign for President. Admittedly, there is something rather extraordinary about criticism this harsh coming from a former Cabinet member while a sitting President is still in office. It’s enough of a rarity that it is hard to recall the last time we saw something similar happen under any other President. In the end, though, I have to wonder whether this is the kind of story that will really have much of an impact anywhere other than inside the beltway, amongthose seeking to advance a political agenda, or along the Acela Corridor.
Take what Gates reportedly says in the book about President Obama, specifically the fact that he had doubts about his policy in Afghanistan. Quite honestly, I would have been more shocked if Gates had said that President Obama had absolutely no doubts that the Afghan Surge, which was as questionable a military strategy as the Iraq Surge was, would absolutely succeed and that he implicitly trusted Afghan President Karzai. Such an attitude would not only have flown in the face of the facts and the evidence, but it would have been as incredibly naive as the people in the Bush Administration who believed without question that the Iraq War strategy they adopted in the winter of 2002/2003 would be a smashing success. Perhaps what is problematic about this position, of course, is the fact that the President went forward with the plan recommended to him and that he did so for what appear to be as much political reasons as solid For reasons. Typical of the conservative reaction on this aspect of the right’s reaction to the revelations in the book is this from Paul Mirenghoff:
Woodward describes Gates’ report as one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat. That’s an understatement. Expending American blood on behalf of a strategy one has devised but doesn’t believe in is despicable, if not criminal.\
Flash forward to the vote on authorizing the second war with Iraq. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and many other Democrats voted in favor. Was this because they believed the U.S. should spend blood and treasure to oust Saddam Hussein? Don’t be silly. The vote was politically motivated. Public support for going to war was high, as was the probability of success. So prospective presidential candidates like Clinton and Kerry weren’t willing to say “no.”
Barack Obama said no, but he was in an entirely different political position. Obama was plotting his rise in Illinois Democratic politics, a decidedly left-wing affair. It was in his interest at that time to take an antiwar position. Later, when the war initially went well, he backed away from that stance, only to re-embrace it when things went south. Peter Wehner has documented this.
Flash forward to the Iraq surge. Gates has already shown the criminal cynicism of Hillary Clinton and, it seems, Obama on that momentous issue.
Flash forward to Afghanistan, and the pattern becomes complete.
Republicans send U.S. troops into harm’s way when they believe (rightly or wrongly) that doing so serves America’s interests. Democrats send them into harm’s way when they believe it serves their personal political interests. It’s just about that simple.
I’m not entirely sure the American public is going to see it that way, though, to the extent they pay attention to the Gates book at all.
For example, with regard to President Obama, shifting focus away from Iraq and toward Afghanistan was a primary point of his campaign for President, during which he often accused the Bush Administration of losing focus on the war in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda in order to engage in what many would characterize as a cynical and unnecessary effort to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein and replace it with, well, something they never seemed to have a plan for. In many respects, that part of Obama’s criticism had merit, and while his decision to surge troops into Afghanistan was questionable both at the time and in hindsight, it’s worth noting that most people on the right were criticizing him not for the surge itself but for the fact that he allegedly wasn’t sending enough troops into the surge because advisers such as General Stanley McChrystal had leaked to the press that they had recommended a far larger and longer commitment than the President was willing to agree to. Does anyone think the American public, which is now at the point where they just want all American troops out of that country, is going to blame him for being cautious? If anything, they’ll blame him or not withdrawing from the country sooner, but even in that case they still re-elected him in 2012 notwithstanding the fact that he had committed to a U.S. presence in country at least until the end of 2014.
As for the comments about Hillary Clinton allegedly admitting that her vote against the Iraqi surge was at last partly motivated by politics, I’m once again unsure that this will have any real impact outside the inner circles of power, the punditocracy, and the D.C./New York cocktail party circuit. For one thing, the vote to approve the surge is now nearly seven years in the past and our withdrawal from Iraq is some two years in the past. To the extent they even get asked about the matter in polls anymore, it is fairly clear that the American public prefers to put that entire war behind them and believes that the conflict was not at all worth the price that we paid in that war. This would seem to be true not just in a Democratic Primary but also in a potential General Election. Indeed, if anyone on the right believes that opposition to an incredibly unpopular and, in the end, rather unsuccessful, war is going to be a major factor against Clinton or anyone else in the 2016 election, they are seriously mistaken. Even the allegation that Clinton allegedly admitted that her vote against the surge was based as much on politics as on strategy doesn’t strike me as having much of an impact, even though I will admit that it’s the kind of admission that it’s kind of surprising to hear, even indirectly, a politician actually make.
So yes, there are plenty of surprisingly harsh assessments in Gates’s book and I’m sure they’ll be a subject of discussion for days to come. In the end, though, I suspect that, as with many of these books, they won’t resonate far beyond the usual centers of power.