In a new memoir, former defense secretary Robert Gates unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war, writing that by early 2010 he had concluded the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.
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.
It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.
Gates’s severe criticism is even more surprising — some might say contradictory — because toward the end of Duty, he says of Obama’s chief Afghanistan policies, “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.” That particular view is not a universal one; like much of the debate about the best path to take in Afghanistan, there is disagreement on how well the surge strategy worked, including among military officials.
The sometimes bitter tone in Gates’s 594-page account contrasts sharply with the even-tempered image that he cultivated during his many years of government service, including stints at the CIA and National Security Council. That image endured through his nearly five years in the Pentagon’s top job, beginning in President George W. Bush’s second term and continuing after Obama asked him to remain in the post. In Duty, Gates describes his outwardly calm demeanor as a facade. Underneath, he writes, he was frequently “seething” and “running out of patience on multiple fronts.”
The book, published by Knopf, is scheduled for release Jan. 14.
Gates writes about Obama with an ambivalence that he does not resolve, praising him as “a man of personal integrity” even as he faults his leadership. 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.”
Gates is 70, nearly 20 years older than Obama. He has worked for every president going back to Richard Nixon, with the exception of Bill Clinton. Throughout his government career, he was known for his bipartisan detachment, the consummate team player. Duty is likely to provide ammunition for those who believe it is risky for a president to fill such a key Cabinet post with a holdover from the opposition party.
He writes, “I have tried to be fair in describing actions and motivations of others.” He seems well aware that Obama and his aides will not see it that way.
While serving as defense secretary, Gates gave Obama high marks, saying privately in the summer of 2010 that the president is “very thoughtful and analytical, but he is also quite decisive.” He added, “I think we have a similar approach to dealing with national security issues.”
Obama echoed Gates’s comments in a July 10, 2010, interview for my book Obama’s Wars. The president said: “Bob Gates has, I think, served me extraordinarily well. And part of the reason is, you know, I’m not sure if he considers this an insult or a compliment, but he and I actually think a lot alike, in broad terms.”
During that interview, Obama said he believed he “had garnered confidence and trust in Gates.” In Duty, Gates complains repeatedly that confidence and trust was what he felt was lacking in his dealings with Obama and his team. “Why did I feel I was constantly at war with everybody, as I have detailed in these pages?” he writes. “Why was I so often angry? Why did I so dislike being back in government and in Washington?”
His answer is that “the broad dysfunction in Washington wore me down, especially as I tried to maintain a public posture of nonpartisan calm, reason and conciliation.”
His lament about Washington was not the only factor contributing to his unhappiness. Gates also writes of the toll taken by the difficulty of overseeing wars against terrorism and insurgencies in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Such wars do not end with a clear surrender; Gates acknowledges having ambiguous feelings about both conflicts. For example, he writes that he does not know what he would have recommended if he had been asked his opinion on Bush’s 2003 decision to invade Iraq.
Three years later, Bush recruited Gates — who had served his father for 15 months as CIA director in the early 1990s — to take on the defense job. The first half of Duty covers those final two years in the Bush administration. Gates reveals some disagreements from that period, but none as fundamental or as personal as those he describes with Obama and his aides in the book’s second half.
“All too early in the [Obama] administration,” he writes, “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.”
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  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.
March 3, 2010
Duty reflects the memoir genre, declaring that this is how the writer saw it, warts and all, including his own. That focus tends to give short shrift to the fuller, established record. For example, in recounting the difficult discussions that led to the Afghan surge strategy in 2009, Gates makes no reference to the six-page “terms sheet” that Obama drafted at the end, laying out the rationale for the surge and withdrawal timetable. Obama asked everyone involved to sign on, signaling agreement.
According to the meeting notes of another participant, Gates is quoted as telling Obama, “You sound the bugle . . . Mr. President, and Mike [Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and I will be the first to charge the hill.”
Gates does not include such a moment in Duty. He picks up the story a bit later, after Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the central commander in charge of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, made remarks to the press suggesting he was not comfortable with setting a fixed date to start withdrawal.
At a March 3, 2010, National Security Council meeting, Gates writes, the president opened with a “blast.” Obama criticized the military for “popping off in the press” and said he would push back hard against any delay in beginning the withdrawal. According to Gates, Obama concluded, “ ‘If I believe I am being gamed . . .’ and left the sentence hanging there with the clear implication the consequences would be dire.”
Gates continues: “I was pretty upset myself. I thought implicitly accusing” Petraeus, and perhaps Mullen and Gates himself, “of gaming him in front of thirty people in the Situation Room was inappropriate, not to mention highly disrespectful of Petraeus. As I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President 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.”
‘Breaches of Faith’
Lack of trust is a major thread in Gates’s account, along with his unsparing criticism of Obama’s aides. At times, the two threads intertwine. For example, after the devastating 2010 Haitian earthquake that had left tens of thousands dead, Gates met with Obama and Donilon, the deputy national security adviser, about disaster relief.
Donilon was “complaining about how long we were taking,” Gates writes. “Then he went too far, questioning in front of the president and a roomful of people whether General [Douglas] Fraser [head of the U.S. Southern Command] was competent to lead this effort. I’ve rarely been angrier in the Oval Office than I was at that moment. . . . My initial instinct was to storm out, telling the president on the way that he didn’t need two secretaries of defense. It took every bit of my self-discipline to stay seated on the sofa.”
Gates confirms a previously reported statement in which he told Obama’s first national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones, that he thought Donilon would be a “disaster” if he succeeded Jones (as Donilon did in late 2010). Gates writes that Obama quizzed him about this characterization; a one-on-one meeting with Donilon followed, and that “cleared the air,” according to Gates.
His second year with Obama proved as tough as the first. “For me, 2010 was a year of continued conflict and a couple of important White House breaches of faith,” he writes.
The first, he says, was Obama’s decision to seek the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays serving in the military. Though Gates says he supported the decision, there had been months and months of debate, with details still to work out. On one day’s notice, Obama informed Gates and Mullen that he would announce his request for a repeal of the law. Obama had “blindsided Admiral Mullen and me,” Gates writes.
Similarly, in a battle over defense spending, “I was extremely angry with President Obama,” Gates writes. “I felt he had breached faith with me . . . on the budget numbers.” As with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” “I felt that agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient.”
Gates acknowledges forthrightly in Duty that he did not reveal his dismay. “I never confronted Obama directly over what I (as well as [Hillary] Clinton, [then-CIA Director Leon] Panetta, and others) saw as the president’s determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations. His White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.”
It got so bad during internal debates over whether to intervene in Libya in 2011 that Gates says he felt compelled to deliver a “rant” because the White House staff was “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”
Gates says his instructions to the Pentagon were: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.” Power, then on the national security staff and now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been a strong advocate for humanitarian intervention.
Another time, after Donilon and Biden tried to pass orders to Gates, he told the two, “The last time I checked, neither of you are in the chain of command,” and said he expected to get orders directly from Obama.
Life at the top was no picnic, Gates writes. He did little or no socializing. “Every evening I could not wait to get home, get my office homework out of the way, write condolence letters to the families of the fallen, pour a stiff drink, wolf down a frozen dinner or carry out,” since his wife, Becky, often remained at their home in Washington State.
“I got up at five every morning to run two miles around the Mall in Washington, past the World War II, Korean, and Vietnam memorials, and in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And every morning before dawn, I would ritually look up at that stunning white statue of Lincoln, say good morning, and sadly ask him, How did you do it?”
Gates says the memoir’s title comes from a quote, “God help me to do my duty,” that he kept on his desk. The quote has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln’s war secretary, Edwin Stanton.
At his confirmation hearings to be Bush’s defense secretary in late 2006, Gates told the senators that he had not “come back to Washington to be a bump on a log and not say exactly what I think, and to speak candidly and, frankly, boldly to people at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about what I believe and what I think needs to be done.”
But Gates says he did not speak his mind when the committee chairman listed the problems he would face as secretary. “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 shitstorm. It was the first of many, many times I would sit at the witness table thinking something very different from what I was saying.”
Duty offers the familiar criticism of Congress and its culture, describing it as “truly ugly.” Gates’s cold feelings toward the legislative branch stand in stark contrast to his warmth for the military. He repeatedly describes his affection for the troops, especially those in combat.
Gates wanted to quit at the end of 2010 but agreed to stay at Obama’s urging, finally leaving in mid-2011. He later joined a consulting firm with two of George W. Bush’s closest foreign policy advisers — former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser during Bush’s second term. The firm is called RiceHadleyGates. In October, he became president-elect of the Boy Scouts of America.
Gates writes, “I did not enjoy being secretary of defense,” or as he e-mailed one friend while still serving, “People have no idea how much I detest this job.”
Evelyn Duffy of The Washington Post also contributed to this report.
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