Robert Gates Photo: Reuters
Washington: In a new memoir, former United States defence secretary Robert Gates unleashes harsh judgments about President Barack 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.”
Levelling one of the more serious charges that a defence secretary could make against a commander-in-chief sending forces into combat, Mr Gates asserts that Mr Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The President was “sceptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Mr Gates writes in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.
Mr Obama, after months of contentious discussion with Mr Gates and other top advisers, deployed 30,000 more troops in a final push to stabilise Afghanistan before a phased withdrawal beginning in mid-2011. “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” Mr Gates writes.
As a candidate, Mr 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 US, requiring even more military resources to succeed. In Mr Gates’ highly emotional account, Mr 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 Mr Gates, became personally wounding and impossible to repair.
It is rare for a former cabinet member, let alone a defence secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.
Mr Gates’s severe criticism is even more surprising – some might say contradictory – because towards the end of his book he says of Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Obama asked him to remain in the post. In the book, Mr Gates describes his outwardly calm demeanour as a facade. Underneath, he writes, he was frequently “seething” and “running out of patience on multiple fronts”.
Mr Gates writes about Mr 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 Mr Obama, it reflects outright contempt for Vice President Joe Biden and many of Mr Obama’s top aides. Mr Biden is accused of “poisoning the well” against the military leadership. Thomas Donilon, initially Mr Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and then-Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the White House co-ordinator for the wars, are described as regularly engaged in “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders”.
Mr Gates also writes: “I never confronted Obama directly over what I (as well as [Hillary] Clinton, [then-CIA Director Leon] Panetta, and others) saw as the President’s determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations. His White House was by far the most centralised and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.”
Mr Gates is 70, nearly 20 years older than Mr 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. His book is likely to provide ammunition for those who believe it is risky for a president to fill such a key post with a holdover from the opposition party.
The book, published by Knopf, is scheduled for release January 14 in the US.