In a new memoir, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is opening up for the first time about his years inside the cabinets of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In more than 600 pages, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” offers a detailed history of battling with Congress and taking on the Pentagon bureaucracy.
But it’s Gates’ scathing critique of President Obama’s leadership as commander-in-chief and the performance of his administration on national security that is raising eyebrows across Washington.
Gates served as defense secretary from 2006-2011, leading the Pentagon through some of the most difficult periods of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Gates closes his memoir by revealing he is to be buried in Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60, the final home for many killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The greatest honor possible would be to rest among my heroes for all eternity.”
Statements like that have always made Gates a highly respected figure on both sides of the aisle in Washington. And it’s also why many observers find “Duty” a surprisingly damning account, belying Gates’ reputation for an even-tempered, soft-spoken, professional calm.
But as Gates admits, he was frequently “seething” and “running out of patience on multiple fronts.”
Gates writes in an excerpt published in The Wall Street Journal that he frequently fantasized about quitting as defense secretary in front of the congressional panels he so despised. “All too often during my 4½ years as secretary of defense, when I found myself sitting yet again at that witness table at yet another congressional hearing, I was tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot. The exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a dog in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else.”
Indeed, Gates’ contempt for Congress is obvious in the memoir in a way it never was at the witness table. “I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country,” fumes Gates in a portion reported by the Journal.
Losing Faith in the Afghanistan Strategy
The most serious charge made by the former secretary of defense against the commander-in-chief is that Obama sent 30,000 troops into harm’s way in Afghanistan with little to no confidence in the success of their mission.
According to published reports in both The Washington Post and The New York Times, Gates writes of the president's 2009 decision to surge troop levels in Afghanistan that the president was “skeptical, if not outright convinced it would fail.”
Gates ultimately concluded the president had lost faith in his own Afghanistan strategy following a National Security Council meeting in March 2011. Gen. David Petraeus, then CENTCOM commander overseeing both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, had recently made remarks to the press suggesting discomfort with a fixed date for withdrawal from Afghanistan.
According to Gates, President Obama began the meeting by blasting military leaders for “popping off to the press,” saying he would not tolerate any delay of the start of the Afghan withdrawal. Obama then made a veiled threat to the military leadership, Gates writes, concluding, “‘If I believe I am being gamed…’ and left the sentence hanging there with the clear implication the consequences would be dire.”
Gates continues to say he felt “pretty upset” with Obama’s comments, feeling that “implicitly accusing” Petraeus and others “of gaming him in front of thirty people in the Situation Room was inappropriate, not to mention highly disrespectful of Petraeus. As I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] 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.”
The alleged mistreatment of military leaders by the president and his administration appears to be major theme of his memoir, based on multiple reports. “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.”
Frustration with Afghanistan policymaking also led to Gates contemplate resignation, according to The Times. After a contentious 2009 meeting to assess the way forward in Afghanistan, Gates writes he “was deeply uneasy with the Obama White House’s lack of appreciation — from the top down — of the uncertainties and unpredictability of war.” He recalls, “I came closer to resigning that day than at any other time in my tenure.”
White House “Breaches of Faith”
According to The Post, Gates described 2010 as “a year of continued conflict and a couple of important White House breaches of faith,” including over the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and defense spending.
Despite several months of debate and deliberation on the how to eliminate the ban on gays serving in the military, Gates said he felt “blindsided” when “on one day’s notice” Obama informed him and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen “that he would announce his request for a repeal of the law.” Obama’s request would come even as the Pentagon was still trying to work out details about implementation of the repeal.
A second disappointment came as the battle over defense spending intensified in Washington. “I was extremely angry with President Obama,” Gates writes. “I felt he had breached faith with me…on the budget numbers.”
These two disappointments left Gates feeling “that agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient.”
Harsh Words for Vice President Biden
Gates’ memoir is unsparing in its criticism of Vice President Joe Biden. He calls Biden “a man of integrity,” but says he thinks Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” He goes on to accuse Biden of “poisoning the well” against the military leadership on a number of issues within the White House.
Most Controlling White House on National Security Since Nixon
In the Wall Street Journalexcerpt, Gates writes that the Obama 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.”
“Most of my conflicts with the Obama administration during the first two years weren't over policy initiatives from the White House but rather the [national security staff's] micromanagement and operational meddling, which I routinely resisted,” Gates writes.
According to The Post, relations with the White House national security team reached a low point in 2011 during deliberation of U.S. intervention in Libya. When Gates learned White House staff were “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved,” he decided to put the White House on an information diet. He issued instructions inside the Pentagon: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”
And it wasn't just him who was offended by the White House’s “controlling nature.” The Obama White House’s “determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work, offended Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton as much as it did me.”