In Defense of Obama on the Gates Memoir

The president questioned the generals? Good. That's his job.

Robert Gates (left) and President Barack Obama cover their hearts during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner during Gates' Armed Forces Farewell Tribute on the River Parade Field at the Pentagon June 30, 2011 in Arlington, Virginia. (National Journal)

In what Bob Woodward called a "harsh" judgment of President Obama, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes of the commander-in-chief adding troops to Afghanistan over the objections of his political team, second-guessing that decision, and never quite trusting his generals. "For him," Gates writes in his memoir, "it's all about getting out."

To that I say, bravo. While excerpts of Gates's books are being interpreted as embarrassing for Obama, I'm looking forward to reading the memoir in full — and expect to come away more impressed with the president than his Defense chief.

Consider first what the memoir says about Gates himself. Criticism of a sitting president from a former Cabinet member is rare and should be taken with a grain of salt. In a breach of propriety that raises questions about his integrity, the excerpts reveal Gates to be surprisingly petty at times, such as when he complains about spending cuts at the Pentagon and the lack of notice about Obama's decision to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays serving in the military.

Then remember why Obama was elected in 2008. He reflected the nation's ambivalence toward war, promising to pull out of Iraq and wean Afghanistan from U.S. dependence. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, waged war on Iraq under false pretenses and with a lack of skepticism toward neoconservatives in his war Cabinet, led by Vice President Dick Cheney. Initially, anyway, he deferred to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his generals. Famously calling himself "The Decider," Bush rarely revisited a decision, and earned a reputation for stubbornness.

When the president finally fired Rumsfeld and distanced himself from Cheney, it was too late; the public's opinion of the war and of the president had plummeted.

It's with that context people will read Gates's description of a pivotal meeting in the Situation Room in March 2011, called to discuss the Afghan withdrawal timetable. A frustrated Obama opened by expressing doubts about Gen. David Patraeus, his commander in Afghanistan, and questioning whether he could do business with the Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai.

"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," Gates wrote. The only troubling thing about this assessment is Obama's apparent lack of ownership — and it rings true, given his penchant for ducking responsibility during his first five years in office.

But doubts about an ally and his commanders? We need more of that. A lack of skepticism, curiosity, and reflection sunk Bush. Further back, who knows how many lives would have been saved during the Vietnam War had President Johnson acted on his private doubts, most of which didn't come to light until after he left office. Abraham Lincoln ran through a series of generals until he found one he could trust to win the Civil War, Ulysses Grant.

The president was "skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail," Gates said of Obama's surge in Afghanistan. That doesn't strike me as surprising. Like Bush's decision to add troops to Iraq late in his presidency, Obama doubled down on Afghanistan knowing there was no clear path to success. Presidents don't get to make the easy decisions, the sure winners. Franklin Roosevelt was hounded by doubts about the invasion of Europe during World War II. On the eve of D-Day, Roosevelt's commander, future President Dwight Eisenhower, prepared a statement announcing the failure of the invasion and taking full responsibility.

Gates's memoir raises some important and familiar questions about Obama's leadership: micromanagement and its odd companion, disengagement, along with hyperpoliticization of White House policy. He writes that both Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton confessed that their positions on Iraq during the 2008 campaign were shaped by political considerations.

These are fair criticisms. But I have less sympathy for statements like this: "All too early in the [Obama] 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."

If military commanders were shown disrespect or given obstacles to fighting war, that would be one thing. But if they were questioned and challenged and kept in check, it is another. Isn't that the president's job?

CORRECTION: Initial post identified the wrong year for the pivotal March 2011 meeting.