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.
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.