Former Defense Sec. Gates: Obama 'Skeptical' of His Own Afghan Strategy

Image: Former Defense Sec. Gates: Obama 'Skeptical' of His Own Afghan Strategy

Wednesday, 08 Jan 2014 12:25 PM

By Melanie Batley

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President Barack Obama had major doubts about his decision to commit more troops in the war in Afghanistan, believing it would ultimately end in failure, his former defense secretary, Robert Gates, writes in his memoir, to be published next week.

Gates, who served from 2006 to 2011 under Obama and his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, sharply criticizes Obama's approach to a number of defense-related issues, especially Afghanistan, according to a review of "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War" in The Washington Post on Tuesday.

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Gates adds that Obama was "skeptical if not outright convinced [the administration strategy] would fail," according to the Post.

During a meeting in March 2011 to discuss the withdrawal timetable, Gates recalls that Obama also expressed doubts about the commander he had chosen, Gen. David Petraeus, and questioned whether he could work with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, The New York Times reports.

"As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzi, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his," Gates writes. "For him, it's all about getting out."

Gates nonetheless believed the president to be an admirable thinker who often made decisions "opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats," according to the Times.

He points to Obama's approval of the mission to attack the compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding as, "one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House."

Gates also describes Obama as "a man of personal integrity."

Gates however gets into detail about the difficulties he had in working with the president and the administration, saying it ultimately "produced a rift, that at least for Gates, became personally wounding and impossible to repair," according to the Post.

He says that after an initial honeymoon period with Obama's inner circle, they soon tired of him and he found himself in ongoing policy battles with top aides, according to the Times.

In particular, Vice President Joe Biden, who he accused of "poisoning the well" against the U.S. military leadership; Tom Donilon, Obama's national security adviser; and Douglas Lute, the Army general who managed the Afghan policy, the Times reports.

Gates says that at one point in September 2009 he considered quitting.

"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 writes, according to the Times. "I came closer to resigning that day than at any other time in my tenure."

Gates also describes his outrage and misery at other points during his service under Obama.

"All too often during my 4½ years as secretary of defense, when I found myself sitting yet again at that witness table at yet another congressional hearing, I was tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot.

"The exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: 'I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else'," he writes, according to The Wall Street Journal.

He adds, however, that the main source of his frustration throughout his tenure, was the difficulty of achieving anything of consequence due to the gridlock of Washington.

Editor’s Note: Obama’s Budget Takes Aim at Retired Americans

"Getting anything consequential done was so damnably difficult — even in the midst of two wars. I did not just have to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq and against al-Qaida; I also had to battle the bureaucratic inertia of the Pentagon, surmount internal conflicts within both administrations, avoid the partisan abyss in Congress, evade the single-minded parochial self-interest of so many members of Congress and resist the magnetic pull exercised by the White House, especially the Obama administration, to bring everything under its control and micromanagement," he writes, according to the Journal.

"Over time, the broad dysfunction of today's Washington wore me down, especially as I tried to maintain a public posture of nonpartisan calm, reason and conciliation."

Gates also described his views on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom he said he shared a common view of national security issues, and praised her in his memoir as "smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world," according to the Post.

Nonetheless, he revealed that even though Clinton supported the Afghan surge, she had confided she opposed the Iraq surge, ordered by former President George W. Bush, for political reasons, a position, the Post notes could play into her image of taking decisions on a purely partisan basis, which could ultimately haunt her if she runs for president in 2016.

"Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq has been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary … The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying," Gates writes, according to the Post.

At the end of this memoir, Gates says he is to be buried in Arlington Cemetery's Section 60, the final resting place of many killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. "The greatest honor possible would be to rest among my heroes for all eternity," he writes, according to the Times.

Republicans swiftly responded to Gates' sentiments in the memoir, in particular, his assessment of the tensions over Afghanistan. Arizona Sen. John McCain told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "Did you ever hear the president talk about Afghanistan without talking about that we were leaving?"

The White House nonetheless played down any suggestions by Gates that Obama's private views on Afghanistan were not in keeping with his policy positions.

In a statement released Tuesday, Caitlin Hayden, the National Security Council spokeswoman, said, "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-Qaida, while also ensuring that we have a clear plan for winding down the war, which will end this year," the Times reports.

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