Obama: A New Kind of Commander-in-Chief
In Bob Gates’s first memoir, other presidents are more loyal and serious.

President Obama with Secretary of Defense Gates in February, 2009


Michael Barone

Like just about everybody else in Washington and many across the country, I’ve been reading the excerpts from former defense secretary Robert Gates’s book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.

It presents a significantly more negative picture of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton than Gates’s statements in office led anyone to expect.

And it presents an interesting contrast with Gates’s previous memoir, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, published in 1996.

To be sure, Gates in Duty says many positive things about his most recent former colleagues. He calls Obama’s decision to target Osama bin Laden the “most courageous” presidential decision he has seen.

He praises Clinton’s judgment, her sense of humor, and her penchant for hard work. Though he doesn’t make the point explicitly in the excerpt, the secretary of state and secretary of defense weren’t constant and mistrustful antagonists.

But he also presents some damning testimony. Listening to Obama soon after he had ordered a surge of troops into Afghanistan, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [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.”

If this is not cynical enough, he is shocked that Clinton and Obama admit that opposition to the Iraq surge was politically motivated — in the presence of Gates, who was in the chain of command on the surge and helped make it work.

As for Vice President Joe Biden, Gates writes that he “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy issue” over four decades. And he expresses even more angry contempt for congressional leaders.

Gates wrote Duty after leaving government with no intention or expectation of ever returning. But he wrote From the Shadows, published in 1996, in similar circumstances.

He had risen quickly from a junior Russia analyst at the CIA to positions at the National Security Council in the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and first Bush administrations. He was nominated to be CIA director in 1986 but withdrew in the face of congressional opposition; he was nominated again for the post and confirmed in 1991.

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