Defense & National Security

Obama’s former Defense Secretary gives him hell over Afghanistan

Obama's former Defense Secretary gives him hell over Afghanistan

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates isn’t saying anything in his new book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” that President Obama’s critics haven’t been saying about his foreign policy and war leadership for a long time.  For that matter, simple observation reveals the hideous messes in Afghanistan and Iraq, making it clear this President has no real strategy for either.  And because his adoring media works very hard not to observe those messes, there is little real pressure on Obama to get serious about them.  Remember how much anguish the media projected over battle casualties when George Bush was president?  They stopped completely and instantly when Obama took office.  Almost three quarters of combat deaths in Afghanistan have occurred on Obama’s watch, but the media confers absolutely zero accountability on him.  Obama is permitted to remain a distant spectator to his wars – both those that were in progress when he took office, and those he began.

That’s no way to run a White House, and Gates is not shy about pointing it out.  Because he’s Robert Gates, his book is hitting the Beltway political establishment like a bunker-buster bomb.  None other than Bob Woodward reviewed the Gates book for the Washington Postrelating Gates’ assertions that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy” in Afghanistan, and “doesn’t consider the war to be his.  For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Obama, after months of contentious discussion with Gates and other top advisers, deployed 30,000 more troops in a final push to stabilize Afghanistan before a phased withdrawal beginning in mid-2011. “I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” Gates writes.

As a candidate, Obama had made plain his opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion while embracing the Afghanistan war as a necessary response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, requiring even more military resources to succeed. In Gates’s highly emotional account, Obama remains uncomfortable with the inherited wars and distrustful of the military that is providing him options. Their different worldviews produced a rift that, at least for Gates, became personally wounding and impossible to repair.

Woodward notes it is rare for a former Cabinet official to “publish such an antagonistic portrait of a president,” adding that despite this severe criticism, Gates also says he agrees with most of Obama’s Afghanistan policy decisions, and considers him “a man of personal integrity.”

But Barack Obama is the President, not a mid-level Defense Department analyst.  His job is to provide leadership for each sector of his Administration, managing and inspiring the people who present him with options and carry out his policies.  Their overall performance is his responsibility.  One of the really galling things about the Obama presidency is that he consistently takes the exact opposite view.  The buck never gets to his desk; he’s not aware of what anyone is doing, learning about the misadventures of his department heads by reading newspapers.  The components of the titanic government he has nourished are forever letting him down, and Obama is but a helpless spectator to their failure.  Now he’s got to sit there and take guff from Bob Gates because the Pentagon hasn’t fixed Afghanistan for him yet.

Obama is also solely responsible for installing Joe Biden as Vice President, and Gates has a real problem with that:

Though the book simmers with disappointment in Obama, it reflects outright contempt for Vice President Biden and many of Obama’s top aides.

Biden is accused of “poisoning the well” against the military leadership. Thomas Donilon, initially Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and then-Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the White House coordinator for the wars, are described as regularly engaged in “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.”

This criticism prompted the White House to defend Biden as “one of the leading statesmen of his time.”  Whatever else you can say about this Administration, no one can accuse it of lacking entertainment value.

Woodward’s review paints Gates as a good soldier who kept his growing resentment and frustration quietly simmering in his gut until he was off-duty, and finally felt at liberty to share his real feelings with the world.  Having served under both Bush and Obama, Gates seems particularly aggravated with the intrusion of domestic partisan politics into military affairs… and that’s the core problem with Obama’s war policy, because everything he does is guided by domestic political considerations.  He doesn’t want to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq, but he won’t pay the political price for pulling out, so he leaves American troops stuck in a quagmire with straitjacket rules of engagement and no victorious objectives to work for.

Further muddling his political calculations is the enormous emphasis the Left placed upon Afghanistan as “the good war” when they spent years savaging George Bush for Iraq.  Barack Obama certainly doesn’t approach Afghanistan as a noble and necessary endeavor that nothing should distract us from.  On the contrary, he’s opened even more distractions, and was only narrowly prevented from traipsing into the bloody quagmire of Syria.

This is exactly in line with the standard warning against putting a Democrat in charge of the military.  Leadership involves sacrificing personal political capital for the good of the country, and of the troops who stand in harm’s way.  Obama’s reluctance to see it that way is particularly infuriating because he’s got a lapdog media standing by to ensure that any price he pays for making tough decisions will be minimized, just as they worked hard to ensure that George Bush paid top political dollar for everything he did.

The Beltway is also buzzing because Gates levels the same accusations (mixed with comparable personal praise) against the next Democrat likely to make a bid for the White House, Hillary Clinton:

Gates offers a catalogue of various meetings, based in part on notes that he and his aides made at the time, including an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he calls “remarkable.”

He writes: “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.”

Earlier in the book, he describes Hillary Clinton in the sort of glowing terms that might be used in a political endorsement. “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,” he wrote.

Americans will have to decide if they want another Democrat who runs wars as political campaigns perched in the White House when the next military crisis boils over, especially if that pot is bubbling on top of a nuclear flame.

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer professed himself “shocked” by the revelations in Gates’ book during a Fox News panel appearance.  ”How could a President, in good conscience, do that?’ he asked of Obama’s decision to forge ahead with policies he didn’t believe in.  He also noted that Obama has been astoundingly delinquent in his duty to keep the American people appraised of his military progress, and maintaining public support for these ongoing operations.  In every way, Obama treats them as afterthoughts – or worse, distractions from what he really cares about.

Krauthammer says he finds the Gates book to be “an indictment of the President that rises above everything else he’s done in his presidency.”  Gates isn’t fond of interference from Congress or the Pentagon bureaucracy either, as you can see from an excerpt of his book published at the Wall Street Journal:

Much of my frustration came from the exceptional offense I took at the consistently adversarial, even inquisition-like treatment of executive-branch officials by too many members of Congress across the political spectrum—creating a kangaroo-court environment in hearings, especially when television cameras were present. But my frustration also came from the excruciating difficulty of serving as a wartime defense secretary in today’s Washington. Throughout my tenure at the Pentagon, under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, I was, in personal terms, treated better by the White House, Congress and the press for longer than almost anyone I could remember in a senior U.S. government job. So why did I feel I was constantly at war with everybody? Why was I so often so angry? Why did I so dislike being back in government and in Washington?

It was because, despite everyone being “nice” to me, 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 Qaeda; 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 in the Obama administration, to bring everything under its control and micromanagement. 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.

A voter who places high value upon the advice of Robert Gates would conclude a seismic shake-up of the entire military-political complex is necessary… and that complex is much more worrisome than the military-industrial complex we’ve been fretting about for decades.  There is no plausible future in which Hillary Clinton is the President who would lead such an effort.  Not many of the leading Republican candidates for 2016 would do it either, although Senator Rand Paul is spoiling for the sort of saloon brawl with the intelligence community that would probably spill into the halls of the Pentagon.

The pressing question is, will a large number of voters make these considerations in 2016?  Sadly, but understandably, the lull between major military crises is the best opportunity to vote for leadership that could make big changes, since the incoming President wouldn’t be pinned beneath the weight of operations already in progress… but that’s also the environment in which military and foreign affairs leadership tends to be seen as least crucial by the electorate.  Peacetime has been, and always will be, the prelude to the next war; no nation ever gets enough warning of imminent conflict to roll up its sleeves and make adequate preparations for an appointed battle.  Tomorrow’s defenses will be designed and funded during today’s relatively peaceful interlude.

War is always going to have political ramifications – everything the national government of a free republic does is “political” to some degree, if the votes of the people are to have any meaning at all.  But we also expect military operations to have a certain elevation beyond grubby partisan politics.  Gates finds that elevation has deteriorated to crisis levels.  America’s enemies will be keenly interested to know if the next Administration will operate the same way.

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