January 7, 2014
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.
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. 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.”
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