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Posted by on Jan 7, 2014 in Books, Featured, Media, Military, Politics, Terrorism, War | 15 comments

Diss-cussion? Gates Blasts Obama on Afghanistan in new memoir


When President Barack Obama took office, a sign of continuity — and a reassurance to Republicans — was President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense Bob Gates continuing in the same job under Obama. It illustrated the seamless continuation of key aspects of foreign policy and a rare example of consensus. Oh, so that was what was?

Because now the answer is: not really. In new memoir Gates is reportedly blunt in his criticism of Obama, who he feels didn’t have his heart in or even believe his own administration’s policy on Afghanistan as he ordered troops to go or stay there. He reportedly paints a picture of an Obama who couldn’t wait to get out of the country and of a Vice President Joe Biden consistently wrong on military decisions.

The highest profile incarnation of this story comes from The Washington Post’s resident fly-on-the-wall, plugged-into-top-circles legend, Bob Woodward:

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.

The term for this is “faint praise.” And the memoir is already bringing expected responses: 1)many Democrats blast Gates, 2)many Republicans say it’s proof Obama is over his head and not deserving of his carefully cultivated pro-military image that had undercut the advantage GOPers had over Democrats for decades 3)the guessing game is on over who it’ll hurt more (will this drag Obama’s polls down more or hurt Hillary Clinton or hurt Joe Biden?).

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.

Woodward got an official response to Gate’s memoir:

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.

And, Woodward notes, this is not your typical memoir from a former cabinet member:

It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.

Gates’s severe criticism is even more surprising — some might say contradictory — because toward the end of “Duty,” he says of Obama’s chief Afghanistan policies, “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.” That particular view is not a universal one; like much of the debate about the best path to take in Afghanistan, there is disagreement on how well the surge strategy worked, including among military officials.

The sometimes bitter tone in Gates’s 594-page account contrasts sharply with the even-tempered image that he cultivated during his many years of government service, including stints at the CIA and National Security Council.

The New York Times:

Mr. Obama’s decision to retain Mr. Gates at the Pentagon gave his national security team a respected professional and veteran of decades at the center of American foreign policy — and offered a bipartisan aura. But it was not long before Mr. Obama’s inner circle tired of the defense secretary they initially praised as “Yoda” — a reference to the wise, aged Jedi master in the “Star Wars” films — and he of them.

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.”

The Wall Street Journal runs an excerpt — and, yes, the book is as peppery as its advance promo:

All too often during my 4½ years as secretary of defense, when I found myself sitting yet again at that witness table at yet another congressional hearing, I was tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot. The exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else. It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.

Much of my frustration came from the exceptional offense I took at the consistently adversarial, even inquisition-like treatment of executive-branch officials by too many members of Congress across the political spectrum—creating a kangaroo-court environment in hearings, especially when television cameras were present. But my frustration also came from the excruciating difficulty of serving as a wartime defense secretary in today’s Washington. Throughout my tenure at the Pentagon, under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, I was, in personal terms, treated better by the White House, Congress and the press for longer than almost anyone I could remember in a senior U.S. government job. So why did I feel I was constantly at war with everybody? Why was I so often so angry? Why did I so dislike being back in government and in Washington?

It was because, despite everyone being “nice” to me, getting anything consequential done was so damnably difficult—even in the midst of two wars. I did not just have to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq and against al Qaeda; I also had to battle the bureaucratic inertia of the Pentagon, surmount internal conflicts within both administrations, avoid the partisan abyss in Congress, evade the single-minded parochial self-interest of so many members of Congress and resist the magnetic pull exercised by the White House, especially in the Obama administration, to bring everything under its control and micromanagement. Over time, the broad dysfunction of today’s Washington wore me down, especially as I tried to maintain a public posture of nonpartisan calm, reason and conciliation.

I was brought in to help salvage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—both going badly when I replaced Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006. When I was sworn in, my goals for both wars were relatively modest, but they seemed nearly unattainable. In Iraq, I hoped we could stabilize the country so that when U.S. forces departed, the war wouldn’t be viewed as a strategic defeat for the U.S. or a failure with global consequences; in Afghanistan, I sought an Afghan government and army strong enough to prevent the Taliban from returning to power and al Qaeda from returning to use the country again as a launch pad for terror. Fortunately, I believe my minimalist goals were achieved in Iraq and remain within reach in Afghanistan.

……For his part, President Obama simply wanted to end the “bad” war in Iraq and limit the U.S. role in the “good” war in Afghanistan. His fundamental problem in Afghanistan was that his political and philosophical preferences for winding down the U.S. role conflicted with his own pro-war public rhetoric (especially during the 2008 campaign), the nearly unanimous recommendations of his senior civilian and military advisers at the Departments of State and Defense, and the realities on the ground.


It is difficult to imagine two more different men than George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Clearly, I had fewer issues with Bush. Partly that is because I worked for him in the last two years of his presidency, when, with the exception of the Iraq surge, nearly all the big national security decisions had been made. He had made his historical bed and would have to lie in it. I don’t recall Bush ever discussing domestic politics—apart from congressional opposition—as a consideration in decisions he made during my time with him (although, in fairness, his sharp-elbowed political gurus were nearly all gone by the time I arrived). By early 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney was the hawkish outlier on the team, with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and me in broad agreement.

With Obama, however, I joined a new, inexperienced president determined to change course—and equally determined from day one to win re-election. Domestic political considerations would therefore be a factor, though I believe never a decisive one, in virtually every major national security problem we tackled. The White House staff—including Chiefs of Staff Rahm Emanuel and then Bill Daley as well as such core political advisers as Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs —would have a role in national security decision making that I had not previously experienced (but which, I’m sure, had precedents).


Stylistically, Bush and Obama had much more in common than I expected. Both were most comfortable around a coterie of close aides and friends (like most presidents) and largely shunned the Washington social scene. Both, I believe, detested Congress and resented having to deal with it, including members of their own party. They both had the worst of both worlds on the Hill: They were neither particularly liked nor feared. Nor did either work much at establishing close personal relationships with other world leaders. Both presidents, in short, seemed aloof from two constituencies important to their success.

The relationship between senior military leaders and their civilian commander in chief is often tense, and that was certainly my experience under both Bush and Obama. Bush was willing to disagree with his senior military advisers, but he never (to my knowledge) questioned their motives or mistrusted them personally. 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. Bush seemed to enjoy the company of the senior military; I think Obama considered time spent with generals and admirals an obligation.

Such difficulties within the executive branch were nothing compared with the pain of dealing with Congress. Congress is best viewed from a distance—the farther the better—because up close, it is truly ugly. 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.

I was more or less continuously outraged by the parochial self-interest of all but a very few members of Congress. Any defense facility or contract in their district or state, no matter how superfluous or wasteful, was sacrosanct. I was constantly amazed and infuriated at the hypocrisy of those who most stridently attacked the Defense Department as inefficient and wasteful but fought tooth and nail to prevent any reduction in defense activities in their home state or district.

I also bristled at what’s become of congressional hearings, where rude, insulting, belittling, bullying and all too often highly personal attacks on witnesses by members of Congress violated nearly every norm of civil behavior. Members postured and acted as judge, jury and executioner. It was as though most members were in a permanent state of outrage or suffered from some sort of mental duress that warranted confinement or at least treatment for anger management.

And he notes the evaporation of Congress’ moderate center:

I continue to worry about the incessant scorched-earth battling between Congress and the president (which I saw under both Bush and Obama) but even more about the weakening of the moderate center in Congress. Today, moderation is equated with lacking principles and compromise with “selling out.” Our political system has rarely been so polarized and unable to execute even the basic functions of government.

I found all of this dysfunction particularly troubling because of the enormity of the duties I shouldered. Until becoming secretary of defense, my exposure to war and those who fought it had come from antiseptic offices at the White House and CIA. Serving as secretary of defense made the abstract real, the antiseptic bloody and horrible. I saw up close the cost in lives ruined and lives lost.

The White House issued this statement disagreeing with Gates and defending Joe Biden:

“The president deeply appreciates Bob Gates’ service as secretary of defense, and his lifetime of service to our country. 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. 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. The president wishes Secretary Gates well as he recovers from his recent injury, and discusses his book.”

“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.”

And the impact of this? It’ll sell a lot of books, particularly among those who don’t like Barack Obama. It’ll be another negative piece of imagery that may not drive down Obama’s polls, but it won’t help him, either. And Republicans will most assuredly use and quote the Gates book in 2014 and 2016 to try and regain their longtime advantage over Democrats on national security and military issues.

Gates will now be a hero on Fox News, conservative talk shows and among conservative bloggers. MSNBC, liberal talkers and most Democratic bloggers will defend Obama and question Gates’ motives, bipartisanship and honesty in waiting so long to bluntly blast Obama during a mid-term election year.



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.


This Woodward account of Robert Gates’ new memoir makes me think more highly of Obama:

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.

Yeah, whatever. It sounds as though Obama and Biden (who Gates loathed) were both skeptical of the military POV on this and that is to their credit. Civilian leadership should be skeptical of the military and challenge it to prove that what it says is necessary is actually necessary. They have many institutional and individual incentives to do otherwise.

Still, you have to wonder what might have been if the Obama team had understood that having a Republican Secretary of Defense would not help them politically. Not much I’d guess. When it comes to national security all president’s are dealing with a bipartisan majority that defines itself by its servility to hawkish imperatives.

-Just One Minute:

So Obama was sending our young men and women off to a meat grinder with no real confidence in the likelihood of success. How like Lyndon Johnson

The Week’s Josh Turbush gives 5 takeaways from the memoir. Here are two (go to the link to read them all):

Obama didn’t believe in the Afghan surge
Obama campaigned in 2008 on a promise to pull troops from Iraq and instead focus America’s war effort on Afghanistan. In late 2009, under pressure from the U.S. military, he sent an additional 30,000 troops to help stabilize the country, before they were gradually withdrawn in subsequent years.

Yet Gates writes that, by early 2011, he determined that Obama had already turned against the strategy. According to Gates, Obama opened a March National Security Council meeting by heavily criticizing his military advisers and the progress being made in Afghanistan.

“As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” Gates writes. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”

“I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops,” he adds, “only his support for their mission.”

Obama and Clinton opposed the Iraq surge because of the election

In the run-up to the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, both Obama and Hillary Clinton came out against the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, which was partially credited with bringing the country back from the brink of civil war. However, Gates writes that they later admitted to doing so out of political calculation.

“Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary,” he writes. “The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”

-Hot Air’s Allahpundit:

Hillary’s biggest liability in the 2008 primaries was her vote for the Iraq war. There was no earthly way she was going to support escalation, however strategically justified and however hawkish her reputation generally might be. In fact, she was so eager to make amends to primary voters for that Iraq vote that she gave an interview to the NYT in 2007 detailing her own plan for the war, which would have kept some troops in the country for counterterrorism purposes but would have removed them from all peacekeeping between Sunnis and Shiites — even if ethnic cleansing resulted. I can only assume, per Gates, that that was a political calculation too. Obama, of course, wasn’t about to cede his anti-war advantage over her with lefty voters in the primaries by suddenly embracing the surge either. He didn’t need to: That’s what Afghanistan was for. He’d fight and win “the good war,” for awhile at least. And then, when he concluded that it was pointless, he’d … go on fighting it for awhile more, to spare himself the political embarrassment of having to admit that his strategy had failed. Why Gates finds any of this “surprising” given his first-hand observations about how far O was willing to go to take a position on war publicly that he didn’t hold privately, I don’t know. Could be he’s just being nice in feigning shock, but that’d be an odd show of loyalty in a tell-all that hammers Obama and the White House for all manner of sins. (He’s especially tough on them for incompetently micromanaging the military and accuses Biden in particular of having been wrong on every major foreign-policy decision of the past 40 years. That’s how you can tell that the book’s basically accurate.

-Liberal Values:

Robert Gates is receiving a lot of attention today for his memoir entitled Duty. I suspect that this will have limited long-term impact, but for now it provides a source for lots of quotes both positive and negative about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. We must also take into consideration that the initial report comes from Bob Woodward, who has not been all that reliable in recent years and his selected quotes may or may not be representative of what Gates wrote in the entire memoir. Plus it is not necessarily a bad thing for civilian politicians to show skepticism of military action which might be upsetting to someone with a more military background. Gates is not necessarily correct in his assessment of all matters. For example, Max Fisher writes that Gates was wrong on the most important issue he faced in failing to see the opportunity for peace with the former Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. Gates certainly got in wrong in arguing that Gorbachev was not a reformer.

While the headline of the story reports negative comments from Gates about Barack Obama’s skepticism and lack of interest continuing the war in Afghanistan, Gates also wrote “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”It is hardly a surprise that Obama had mixed feelings about that war which he inherited.

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