Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary, describes the
president as a rigorous thinker who nevertheless was hampered by a
"controlling" national security staff.
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
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. …