The public Robert Gates was the picture of calm bipartisanship and steady professionalism as President Barack Obama’s Republican-holdover defense secretary.
In private, Gates was seething about White House micromanagement, congressional grandstanding, and a president who seemed to lack confidence in his military commanders and was “all about getting out” of Afghanistan.
That contrast may be the biggest surprise in his memoir.
In the book, Gates criticizes Obama’s national security team, including Vice President Joe Biden, for “operational meddling” and fueling the president’s doubts about the war in Afghanistan. Yet he also says Obama made the right calls on the war and in overruling advisers -- and Gates himself -- in ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Former White House officials criticized the book, saying it may have a chilling effect on presidents seeking advice.
“Every White House hates this,” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary. “The first impact is on trust and morale.” Presidents “need people they can talk frankly to.”
“It’s really damaging,” said Paul Begala, a strategist who worked for President Bill Clinton. “When people start to take notes in a meeting, you start to think, ‘Are these notes for some future book? And maybe I should not say anything.’”
For Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who also served in the Clinton White House, the disclosures “will be a political Rorschach Test.”
“For those that have a positive view there will be aspects of this book that reinforce that; for those that have a negative view, there will be aspects that reinforce that,” he said.
Much of that debate may turn on Gates’s criticism of what he says was Obama’s lack of commitment in Afghanistan even as the president was sending more troops in a surge intended to thwart the Taliban and facilitate a withdrawal of forces.
Obama ordered an additional 30,000 troops there in December 2009 to boost the total to about 100,000. The president agreed to the additional forces only on condition the military accept a deadline for their withdrawal.
In his book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” scheduled for release on Jan. 14 and obtained by Bloomberg News, Gates describes Obama as feeling boxed into the surge by leaks, which the president suspected came from senior military officials.
“I was never able to persuade the president and others that it was not a plot,” he writes.
As a candidate, Obama backed the Afghanistan effort as a justified response to the Sept. 11 attacks, while opposing the Iraq war. As a result, Gates says, “our commanders and our troops had expected more commitment to the cause and more passion for it from him.”
By 2011, Obama was questioning his own strategy for the conflict in Afghanistan, which had been resisted by some of his advisers, Gates writes. At a March 2011 meeting of top national security advisers, Obama implicitly criticized his commander there, General David Petraeus, and 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. For him, it’s all about getting out,” writes Gates, 70.
U.S. Representative Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who served almost five years of active duty in the Army, including two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said those observations are “troubling.”
“They also confirmed a lot of what I believed about the president already, from his public actions and words, that he wasn’t fully invested in the war,” Cotton said.
In contrast, Begala said Obama’s deliberations over the wars will probably enhance his reputation. “I want a president who, when he puts troops in harm’s way, worries endlessly that he might be wrong,” he said.
Obama’s ambivalence about the fighting reflected the public mood. Both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are deeply unpopular. Americans by 66 percent to 30 percent say the Afghanistan war wasn’t “worth fighting,” according to an ABC/Washington Post poll taken Dec. 12-15. The public by 62 percent to 37 percent says it was a “mistake” to send troops to Iraq, according to a CNN/ORC poll taken Sept. 6-8.
Although differences between the Pentagon and White House are typical on national security issues, Gates’s memoir raises them to a new level, said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University.
“This is a far more acute form of tension between the Pentagon and the White House from an especially authoritative source,” said Feaver, who served as an adviser on the National Security Council during Bush’s administration.
Obama’s decision to retain Gates, first selected by Bush to succeed Iraq war architect Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006, was seen as a gesture of bipartisanship and reflected Gates’s status as a respected figure in the foreign policy establishment. Gates left office in 2011.
Obama, he writes, was “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,” he says.
Gates offers a rare look at the divisions within the administration.
At one point, he called Obama’s then-national security adviser, Tom Donilon, to complain that Biden was “poisoning the well” by repeatedly telling the president that the military is undermining him and that the Afghan strategy was failing.
“My fuse was really getting short,” writes Gates, who says he had blown up at Donilon and Biden at a meeting on Libya.
In the memoir, Gates slams Biden for being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney yesterday responded that “the president and the rest of us here simply just disagree with that assessment.”
Gates says he also had disagreements with Bush, and he faulted military leaders when he took office for being more interested in preparing for hypothetical future wars than focusing intensively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Even though the nation was waging two wars, neither of which we were winning, life at the Pentagon” under Rumsfeld “was largely business as usual” with “little sense of urgency,” he writes.
Gates also had little patience for lawmakers who say they support the troops but not their mission, a kind of defeatism that he says tells the soldiers they are “putting their lives on the line for nothing.”
He cites the April 2007 comments by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, who said of Iraq “this war is lost.”
“I was furious and shared privately with some of my staff a quote from Abraham Lincoln I had written down long before: ‘Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, or hanged.’”