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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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  • PoliticsWatcher

    Gates: Obama disagreed with me, and his being right made me look bad! Waaaaaah!


    Politics are strange bed fellows! I admire the Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates up to a point. After all Mr. Gates did work enthusiastically for the Bush/Cheney shock and awe administration. I have not read Mr. Gates book nor do I intend to, but I do find it highly unusual that Mr. Gates would write a tell all gossip book just before the 2014 and the near future 2016 elections. I detect the faint aroma of Koch brother money as an inducement for Mr. Gates to write his book. Money has a strange way of changing or adjusting one’s values or affiliations toward his or her friend or friends. In antiquity it was said that the quickest way to end a siege was to load and send a donkey with bag or boxes filled with gold up to the siege gates. After all it was Caesar’s best friend Brutus who designed and struck the first blow to asasinate Gaius Julius Caesar. The only mistake President Obama made was to give Mr. Gates the Presidential Medal of Freedom so soon. Perhaps the medal should have been presented in 2017 if at all? Mr. Gates, a public servant, is now appearing to be just another Lucius Mauntius Plancus AKA the Fish of Roman history during the reign of Caesar and Octavian?

    • Frog

      So you are comparing President Obama to the dictator Caesar?

      • Robert Thomas

        As any U.S. president dictates, so shall the U.S. armed forces act.

        • jonathanpulliam

          Insubordination is more common than you might think, Robert. Despite former president George H.W. Bush ordering former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell not to gloat in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the former Soviet Union, Colin Powell chose to disobey the directive and crow about the U.S. winning the Cold War.


        I am amused by your reply. Why? It illustrates your ignorance of history and the point I was trying to make but you failed to understand my point. Perhaps I should provide a better example?

        • Frog

          No, I totally agree with your comparison. I think you were spot on! I just wanted to make sure. Well done.

  • Caroline

    This is old news. Getting out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were what he ran on. So why act as if it’s new, news? Of course Obama’s a man who thinks and thinks again ~ how refreshing! A political person who is thinking all the time and also acts cautiously when it counts.

  • Stephanie

    If what’s being reported is the worst he has to say then no worries. If he has doubts about the strategy, isn’t that better than George Bush, by far? I think he should have doubts, as long as he can make a decision when he has to.
    If he’s aloof or unconnected– so don’t socialize with him. What does that have to do with policies or actions?
    If he made all the correct decisions–isn’t that a good thing?
    If his schedule wasn’t to Sec Gates’ taste–people can disagree. Perhaps the Sec’ty didn’t make his case, or other factors entered in. Or Pres Obama will rue that decision and agree with the Sec’ty later, in hindsight.

    • jonathanpulliam

      No, Stephanie, it was the duty of the Commander-in-Chief to have rejected a poorly conceived Dept. of Defense-directed fiasco, such as the Afghanistan War debacle has turned out to be, and Obama proved DERELICT in this sworn duty. Obama got some whiz-kid Generals whose every prescription demanded U.S. force expansion and more boots on the ground. If Obama were as skeptical of his own micro-managed plan for prosecution of the war as is being purported by Mr. Gates, he needed to command, and yet he deferred that responsibility to others, two of whom were ultimately to leave their high command positions in disgrace, as we know, so there was never any danger of our troop’s interests in life and limb being well-served, that’s for sure…

  • jonathanpulliam

    Look, Gates’ judgment vis-a-vis “Afghanistan” was historically speaking, extremely poor. U.S. forces, both contractor and military under Secretary Gates’ tenure, managed to, according to the GAO, misplace in theatre some US$ 60,000,000.00 ( in Iraq and Afghanistan ) of the taxpayer’s money which has never been recovered.
    But the problem in Afghanistan for Gates was that he financed both sides in the war, the U.S. forces, and our enemies, the Taliban, who managed to run their entire war effort on the 15% of U.S. disbursements they routinely clawed back from village elders, which had been left by U.S. troops to be used for building projects and the like. Elders who refuse the Taliban demands were killed, so the 15% was invariably paid. This is a country with a per capita income of US$ 200.00 per year, so tens of thousands of dollars falling into the hands of our enemies produces far more value to our enemy than would ordinarily be the case — we have to pay some US$ 200.00 just to get a gallon of milk over to our troops stationed in Afghanistan, remember. Gates’ failure was that he failed to recognize what that region’s history has taught time and again, which Biden, to his credit, was far wiser to have been wary of.


      Yes, and Mr. Gates missed 911 on his watch too.

      • Richard Boucher

        On 9/11 Gates was a Dean at Texas A&M. How do you figure that it was “his watch”?

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