In the media reports on former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new memoir covering his two years serving under President Obama, most headlines breathlessly describe the tome as a scathing critique of the Obama administration.
But the New York Times story on Gates’ book is much more balanced in tone and describes the book as full of praise for the president.
The book runs 600 pages, but most of the news stories—particularly in foreign publications like The Guardian in England and DW in Germany—seem to focus on one particular paragraph that is used to justify headlines about the book’s “harsh” criticisms of the administration.
“As I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander [Gen. David H. Petraeus], can’t stand [Afghan President] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” Gates writes about a March 2011 White House meeting. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”
Since that was a vital centerpiece of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Gates’ assessment hardly sounds like vicious condemnation.
The Times story on the book, called “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” says that in Gates’ view, after ordering a troop increase in Afghanistan, President Obama eventually lost faith in the strategy due to White House advisers who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing. But the Times says Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration, had high praise for the president, describing him as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats.”
In the book’s last chapter, Gates had this to say about Obama and Afghanistan: “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”
Gates reveals that he was opposed to sending Special Operations forces to attack a housing compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. But he goes on to say that the president’s approval for the Navy SEAL mission, despite strong doubts that Bin Laden was even there, was “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”
Gates isn’t nearly as kind to Vice President Joe Biden, whom he describes as “a man of integrity,” but harshly adds, “he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Gates talks about his problems with the controlling, meddling nature of Obama’s advisers and their conflicts with the Pentagon, which they suspected were the source of classified leaks about Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The “controlling nature” of the staff “took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level,” Gates writes.
But later he says, “Only the president would acknowledge to me he had problems with leaks in his own shop.”
One section of the book that is sure to be widely discussed by Washington insiders is Gates’ revelation that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confided that her opposition to President Bush’s Iraq surge when she was in the Senate and a presidential candidate “had been political,” since she was facing Obama, then an anti-war senator, in the Iowa primary.
Gates says the president, in the same conversation, “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,” he writes.
Careful readers may wonder whether there is much of a difference between “surprising” and “dismaying.”