(Washington, D.C.) — “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,'” reports Bob Woodward in the Washington Post.
What’s striking to me about the excerpts that Woodward pulls from the book — Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary At War — is how angry Gates, 70, describes himself as being at President Obama, Vice President Biden, and the White House inner circle over their muddled, dysfunctional, confused and condescending approach towards leadership generally and towards national security policy in particular, especially the wars in the Middle East.
At various points Gates — widely seen a calm, unflappable, non-ideological, bipartisan advisor to presidents going back to the Nixon administration — writes that he was “seething” and “angry” and “running out of patience on multiple fronts.”
Woodward calls the book a “highly emotional account.”
Notably, while Gates has gone public with his feelings and the reasons for them, I hear this same sense of deep frustration with the President and his national security team from a steady stream of generals, special forces operatives, intelligence operatives, and other national security officials up and down the line. They are leaving government service, or actively contemplating leaving. They are losing respect for the Commander-in-chief. They believe he is leading a retreat from America’s role as the world’s only superpower, and creating a vacuum in very dangerous places, the epicenter chief among them. Few of them want to speak publicly. Perhaps Gates is speaking not just for himself, but for them as well.
Looks like a book worth reading.
- 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.
- 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. That image endured through his nearly five years in the Pentagon’s top job, beginning in President George W. Bush’s second term and continuing after Obama asked him to remain in the post. In “Duty,” Gates describes his outwardly calm demeanor as a facade. Underneath, he writes, he was frequently “seething” and “running out of patience on multiple fronts.”
- Lack of trust is a major thread in Gates’s account, along with his unsparing criticism of Obama’s aides. At times, the two threads intertwine. For example, after the devastating 2010 Haitian earthquake that had left tens of thousands dead, Gates met with Obama and Donilon, the deputy national security adviser, about disaster relief.
- Donilon was “complaining about how long we were taking,” Gates writes. “Then he went too far, questioning in front of the president and a roomful of people whether General [Douglas] Fraser [head of the U.S. Southern Command] was competent to lead this effort. I’ve rarely been angrier in the Oval Office than I was at that moment. . . . My initial instinct was to storm out, telling the president on the way that he didn’t need two secretaries of defense. It took every bit of my self-discipline to stay seated on the sofa.”
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.