Memoir Details Obama's Doubts over War

By Shanker, Thom | International New York Times, January 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

Memoir Details Obama's Doubts over War


Shanker, Thom, International New York Times


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 dismaying. …

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