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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Ex-Defense Secretary’s New Memoir Takes Aim At Obama

U.S Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is pictured speaking at a press conference with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai June 4, 2011 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks at a press conference with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai June 4, 2011, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a book due out later this month, offers a harsh critique of President Barack Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war.

Through specific examples of meetings and exchanges, Gates offers a catalog of judgments against both President Obama and Vice President Biden, as well as then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

President Obama has issued a statement disagreeing with Secretary Gates’ antagonistic assessment; however, overall reaction to this rare depiction from a former Cabinet member is imminent.

NPR Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman joins Here & Now’s Robin Young with details.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW. Coming up, the resurgence of al-Qaida-linked groups in Iraq. Some say another war could be coming, but the Obama administration says the U.S. will not be sending troops.

YOUNG: But first memories of recent wars and troop surges. Lots of reaction today to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," which doesn't come out until next week but is raising eyebrows and ire for lines like this one published in the Washington Post: I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission.

Pretty damning words about a commander-in-chief. And the White House has since put out a statement that said, in part: As has always been the case, the president welcomes differences of view among his national security team, which broaden his options and enhance our policies. So what exactly was said? NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman covered Secretary Gates. He joins us now.

And Tom, just tell us more about how the former secretary assesses Obama.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, first of all he says that the president lacks passion and he - and particularly with the war in Afghanistan, and Gates writes that listen, if you're sending soldiers into harm's way, you should at least tell them why the mission is important, why are they sacrificing. And he says Obama really never did that.

And it's interesting because I heard that from soldiers in Afghanistan, as well, where I've been traveling for a number of years. And Gates also says that Obama really was all about winning re-election and domestic politics. So pretty harsh criticism as far as the president is concerned.

And he also takes aim at Vice President Joe Biden, saying he was wrong in every foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades. But with Hillary Clinton, he's saying she's smart and tough-minded and funny, a superb representative for the U.S. all around the world. But he returns to this political issue, as well, with Hillary Clinton.

He recalls a meeting with President Obama and Hillary Clinton in - where they were talking about the Iraq surge in 2006, and both said they opposed it for political reasons, and Hillary Clinton saying - telling Obama she knew she would face him in the Iowa primaries. That's why she was against the surge.

Gates said he sat there and was surprised and dismayed.

YOUNG: Well, to hear war and ultimately people's lives be made a political football, in his view. But going back to President Obama, do I understand that you have concluded that - or seen that the book is critical of Obama but also concludes that he made all the right decisions on Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: That's right. He says he lacks a passion over the mission, but in the end he approved the troop surge in Afghanistan, the 33,000 troops. So it's kind of interesting that Gates on the one hand is critical of the president in not supporting the mission but then again says he made the right decisions as far as Afghanistan.

He is critical, though, of the timetable, the president urging a timetable to pull out of Afghanistan. That was criticized by some military leaders. Gates, however, said he supported that, as well.

YOUNG: Well, how unusual is this, to have a defense secretary criticize the president he served under with a war in Afghanistan still going on and so soon after leaving the administration?

BOWMAN: You know, I think it is unprecedented. We've had defense secretaries in the past criticize policy. Clark Clifford, who of course served as defense secretary under Lyndon Johnson, said in July of 1969 after Johnson left office that they should pull all the combat troops out of Vietnam, not critical of Johnson but the policy. And of course under President Nixon the war continued for several more years.

It is unprecedented as far as I can tell.

YOUNG: Yeah, well, and tell us just a little bit more. I mean, as you said, some of this maybe you heard while you were on the ground. Some of it will be familiar to people. But is there something that jumped out at even you?

BOWMAN: I think that meeting with - that I mentioned with President Obama and Hillary Clinton talking about the political nature of their opposition to the troops surge in Iraq, that was pretty surprising. That's pretty brazen. That was probably the most surprising thing I saw so far in the book.

YOUNG: Yeah, and you mentioned the troop surge. We'll find out a lot more about the behind-the-scenes debate over that in the book.

BOWMAN: Absolutely, right. And basically there was a disagreement over the mission there. Vice President Joe Biden wanted a counter-terror mission, basically small numbers of troops, Green Berets attacking al-Qaida and then using missiles in Pakistan. The military wanted a larger counterinsurgency operation with a lot more troops. That's at the heart of the debate there.

YOUNG: Tom Bowman, NPR Pentagon correspondent on Robert Gates' new memoir, it comes out next week, "Duty: Memoirs a Secretary at War," and we want to mention that Defense Secretary Gates will be discussing his new memoir with NPR's MORNING EDITION on Monday. Tom, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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