Bipartisan Critic Turns His Gaze Toward Obama

WASHINGTON — After ordering a troop increase in Afghanistan, President Obama eventually lost faith in the strategy, his doubts fed by White House advisers who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing, according to his former defense secretary Robert M. Gates. 

In a new memoir, Mr. Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served for two years under Mr. Obama, praises the president as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats.” But Mr. Gates says that by 2011, Mr. Obama began criticizing — sometimes emotionally — the way his policy in Afghanistan was playing out.  

At a pivotal meeting in the situation room in March 2011, called to discuss the withdrawal timetable, Mr. Obama opened with a blast of frustration — expressing doubts about Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander he had chosen, and questioning whether he could do business with the 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,” Mr. Gates wrote. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”  

“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” is the first book describing the Obama administration’s policy deliberations written from inside the cabinet. Mr. Gates offers 600 pages of detailed history of his personal wars with Congress, the Pentagon bureaucracy and, in particular, Mr. Obama’s White House staff. He wrote that the “controlling nature” of the staff “took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level.”  

Mr. Obama’s decision to retain Mr. Gates at the Pentagon gave his national security team a respected professional and veteran of decades at the center of American foreign policy — and offered a bipartisan aura. But it was not long before Mr. Obama’s inner circle tired of the defense secretary they initially praised as “Yoda” — a reference to the wise, aged Jedi master in the “Star Wars” films — and he of them.  

Mr. Gates describes his running policy battles within Mr. Obama’s inner circle, among them Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Tom Donilon, who served as national security adviser; and Douglas E. Lute, the Army lieutenant general who managed Afghan policy issues at the time.  

Mr. Gates calls Mr. Biden “a man of integrity,” but questions his judgment. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Mr. Gates writes. He has high praise for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who served as secretary of state when he was at the Pentagon and was a frequent ally on national security issues.  

But Mr. Gates does say that, in defending her support for the Afghan surge, she confided that her opposition to Mr. Bush’s Iraq surge when she was in the Senate and a presidential candidate “had been political,” since she was facing Mr. Obama, then an antiwar senator, in the Iowa primary. In the same conversation, Mr. Obama “conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political,” Mr. Gates recalls. “To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.” 

Mr. Gates discloses that he almost quit in September 2009 after a dispute-filled meeting to assess the way ahead in Afghanistan, including the number of troops that were needed. “I 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.”  

Caitlin Hayden, the National Security Council spokeswoman, released a statement late Tuesday saying that “deliberations over our policy on Afghanistan have been widely reported on over the years, and it is well known that the president has been committed to achieving the mission of disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda, while also ensuring that we have a clear plan for winding down the war, which will end this year.” 

In response to Mr. Gates’s comments on Mr. Biden, she said, “President Obama relies on his good counsel every day.” 

Mr. Gates is a bipartisan critic of the two presidents he served as defense secretary. He holds the George W. Bush administration responsible for misguided policy that squandered the early victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, although he credits Mr. Bush with ordering a troop surge in Iraq that averted collapse of the mission.  

And he says that only he and Mr. Bush’s second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, pressed forcefully to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, with little result.  

Mr. Gates does not spare himself from criticism. He describes how he came to feel “an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility” for the troops he ordered into combat, which left him misty-eyed when discussing their sacrifices — and perhaps clouded his judgment when coldhearted national security interests were at stake.  

Mr. Gates acknowledges that he initially opposed sending Special Operations forces to attack a housing compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. Mr. Gates writes that Mr. Obama’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.”  

In his final chapter, Mr. Gates makes clear his verdict on the president’s overall Afghan strategy: “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”  

Mr. Gates reveals the depth of Mr. Obama’s concerns over leaks of classified information to news outlets, writing that within his first month in office, the new president said he wanted a criminal investigation into disclosures by The New York Times on covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons.  

Mr. Gates, too, ordered a campaign to stamp out unauthorized disclosures, but grew rankled when White House officials always blamed the Pentagon for leaks. “Only the president would acknowledge to me he had problems with leaks in his own shop,” Mr. Gates writes.  

Mr. Gates, who began public service as an Air Force intelligence officer, tells of emotional meetings with troops in combat, with those who suffered horrific wounds and with their families.  

He writes that 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,” Mr. Gates writes in closing his memoir. 

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