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Obama’s Insincere War
He asked Americans to die in Afghanistan, when he didn’t believe in the fight.

President Obama with Defense Secretary Robert Gates

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Rich Lowry

Robert Gates has roiled the Beltway with perhaps the least surprising bombshell ever to appear in a tell-all Washington memoir.

Did anyone believe that President Barack Obama was passionately committed to the Afghanistan war that he escalated at the same time he announced a withdrawal date?

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If what Gates tells us isn’t particularly new, it still packs a punch coming from such a highly placed, credible source. For Obama, Afghanistan is the insincere war. More than 1,500 troops have died there during his time in office — almost three times as many as under George W. Bush — yet by early 2011, the president had lost whatever faith he had in the war, according to Gates.

In the telling of his former secretary of defense, Obama violated what should be the psychological Powell Doctrine: If you don’t believe in it, don’t fight it.

John Kerry famously asked during the Vietnam War: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? Now the secretary of state should pose a version of his long-ago rhetorical question to his boss. Obama evidently has been asking men to die for what he considers a mistake for years now.

As reported in the press, Gates describes a dawning realization at a March 2011 meeting in the situation room. “As I sat there,” he writes, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghan leader Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

This is the war that the president and other Democrats had long hailed as “the good war.” Candidate Obama made the first item in his proposed “comprehensive strategy” in the war on terror, “getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

The president may have meant every word he said at the time, but his position also happens to have been politically convenient. It allowed him to promise a quick exit from one (very unpopular) war while still sounding tough on the other. He wasn’t a stereotypical dove, but a nuanced, clear-eyed hawk.

Once in office, the rhetoric came due. By all accounts, the president felt trapped by his own advocacy. He and his team resented the military for asking for more troops than he really wanted to send. He escalated by about 50,000 all told, anyway, although with an uncertain trumpet and a highly ambivalent spirit.

Gates writes of how Obama’s political advisers steadily worked on him, driving distrust of the military and skepticism of the war. They were pushing on an open door. According to Gates, the president was “deeply suspicious” of senior military officers and “considered time spent with generals and admirals an obligation.”

Gates still says the president got the big decisions right, so what difference does his sincerity or lack of it make? There are costs to half-heartedness. After announcing the surge, Obama began to effectively vote “present” on his own war. He has refused to make a concerted public case for it.

And if a president doesn’t believe in a war, he is obviously less likely to see it through. The cost of liquidating our position in Iraq — after failed, half-hearted negotiations for a new status-of-forces agreement — has been a resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. If we pull out from Afghanistan right away, the Taliban will surely enjoy a similar windfall.

Obama has a remarkable ability to create critical distance between himself and almost anything. Here is a conflict that began with an invasion that he supported, that he consistently called for escalating, and that he ordered tens of thousands of additional troops to go fight, yet he resisted taking ownership of it.

“I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops,” Gates writes, “only his support for their mission.” Stranger words may never have been written about an American president.

—  Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]. © 2014 King Features Syndicate


Robert Gates: Duty
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s new memoir, Duty: Memories of a Secretary at War, has attracted attention for some frank, at times harsh, comments on President Obama and his administration. Here are some excerpts, as reported in various media outlets.
The “Surge”: “Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had 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.” (Washington Post)
Afghanistan Exit Strategy: “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. For him, it’s all about getting out.” (WaPo)
Military Affairs: “All too early in the administration, suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials — including the president and vice president — became a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders.” (WaPo)
Presidential Passion: “I worked for Obama longer than Bush and I never saw his eyes well up. The only military matter, apart from leaks, about which I ever sensed deep passion on his part was 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'" (Los Angeles Times)
Defense Budgets: “I felt that agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient.” (WaPo)
Control Issues: “[The Obama administration is] by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.” (New York Times)
Commander-in-Chief: “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission.” (WaPo)
Joe Biden: “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." (WaPo)
Hillary Clinton: “I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.” (WaPo)
Afghanistan: “I witnessed a good deal of wishful thinking in the Obama administration about how much improvement we might see with enough dialogue with Pakistan and enough civilian assistance to the Afghan government and people.” (Wall Street Journal)
Capitol Hill: “All too frequently, sitting at that witness table, 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.” (WaPo)
Confirmation: “I remember sitting at the witness table listening to this litany of woe and thinking, “What the hell am I doing here? I have walked right into the middle of a category-five s—tstorm. It was the first of many, many times I would sit at the witness table thinking something very different from what I was saying.” (WaPo)
War on Terror: “President Bush always detested the notion, but our later challenges in Afghanistan — especially the return of the Taliban in force by the time I reported for duty — were, I believe, significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq.” (WSJ)
43 & 44: “They both had the worst of both worlds on the Hill: they were neither particularly liked nor feared. Accordingly, neither had many allies in Congress who were willing to go beyond party loyalty, self-interest, or policy agreement in supporting them." (WSJ)
Updated: Jan. 09, 2014

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