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Obama’s Half-Hearted War

Former defense secretary Robert Gates with President Obama

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Because there is no such thing as an irrelevant abuse of power, the media’s keen interest in the Governor Chris Christie drama has been necessary and welcome. And yet, like many things, scandals come in different degrees. With this in mind, we can only wish that the press corps displayed half the interest in stories of profound national importance that it does in the traffic of the greater New York area. It is “amazing how quickly Bridgegate has buried Bob Gates-gate,” Steven Rattner, the former head of President Obama’s auto-industry task force, wrote yesterday. Indeed so. Yet the bigger surprise is that “Bridgegate” overshadowed Gates’s testimony at all.

In his new memoir, former defense secretary Robert Gates depicts a president who had lost faith in his own war in Afghanistan, but ordered more troops to fight there anyway. Per Gates, President Obama committed 50,000 young men and women to a conflict in Afghanistan that its commander-in-chief was “skeptical if not outright convinced would fail.” “For him,” Gates added, “it’s all about getting out.” Understandably, this left Gates “dismayed.” We hope that’s an understatement.

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Gates depicts a White House suffused with a poisonous distrust of the military. The president, of course, had campaigned on Afghanistan as “the good war” and pledged to send more troops there. But when he took office and his commander on the ground requested the actual number of troops he thought he needed to fulfill the mission, Obama and his aides were outraged and felt betrayed. The president evidently went with the surge because he felt he had no way out, but his heart was never in it. He has failed to make a public case for his own war.

This doesn’t bode well for the Afghan endgame. We have already seen the windfall to militants from the U.S. retreat from the Middle East. This week it was revealed that al-Qaeda now controls more territory in the Arab world than at any point since the outfit was founded — stretching more than 400 miles — and that it has taken the hard-won Iraqi city of Fallujah back from U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. In Iraq, the tide of war didn’t “recede” (in Obama’s word) so much as shift in al-Qaeda’s favor after the U.S. withdrawal. If the administration now decides to pull out entirely from Afghanistan, the Taliban will surely get a similar boost, and so many of the gains won by the troops that the president sent to fight a distant war will wash away.

What Bob Gates tells us in his book — including that Hillary Clinton opposed President Bush’s surge on political grounds, and that Vice President Joe Biden is usually wrong — isn’t exactly news, but it is damning and important all the same.


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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