Gates memoir skewers Obama
The bane of second term presidents in recent history has been memoirs written by first term cabinet secretaries.
Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43, and now Barack Obama have all had to endure scathing critiques of their policy coming from formerly trusted aides and advisors. All presidents have rejected the criticism, pointing out that some people will say anything to sell a book. But I can't recall an account from such a powerful figure as a defense secretary that paints a picture of the commander in chief that is so at odds with his public personae.
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.
In this Wall Street Journal op-ed today, Gates points to domestic political considerations as a key factor in making military decisions:
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).
I never confronted Obama directly over what I (as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and others) saw as his determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations. His White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.
And did Gates hate Congress?
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.
He includes a remarkable exchange between the president and Hillary Clinton where both admit their opposition to the 2007 Iraq surge was based on politics:
"All too early in the [Obama] administration," he writes, "suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials - including the president and vice president - became a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders."
Gates offers a catalogue of various meetings, based in part on notes that he and his aides made at the time, including an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he calls "remarkable."
He writes: "Hillary told the president that her opposition to the  surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . 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."
Cabinet secretaries - especially defense and secretaries of state - are prisoners of the bureaucracy. Gates became frustrated with being unable to get anything of significance done as he had to battle the permanent Pentagon bureaucracy whose attitude was that Gates was just a passing annoyance and could be sidelined and stonewalled until it was time for him to go. Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative - it hardly mattered. Gates found out that he rarely could impose his will on the bureaucracy and it led to his disgust with Washington and politics.
What to make of his critique of Obama? Mild, compared to what George W. Bush had to endure from formerly trusted aides. But there is also confirmation that Obama's far left worldview is distrustful of people in uniform and that his leadership abilities as commander in chief are found wanting.