Here’s a president who made all the right calls, even though his decisions were often “opposed by his political advisors” or were “unpopular with his fellow Democrats.” Here’s a president who was hesitant to rubber-stamp his military leadership’s decisions. Here’s a president responsible for “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”
The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward read about a president who did these things and decided that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ new memoir of serving in both the Bush and Obama adminstrations, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, is a “harsh critique of Obama’s leadership.”
Woodward’s summary of the new book focuses on the rift with the president over the Afghanistan War. But it’s clear that the former secretary ultimately recognized that there was little hope of a successful outcome in the conflict that began in the aftermath of 9/11 — but not because of any decision President Obama made.
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. Resources and senior-level attention were diverted from Afghanistan. U.S. goals in Afghanistan—a properly sized, competent Afghan national army and police, a working democracy with at least a minimally effective and less corrupt central government—were embarrassingly ambitious and historically naive compared with the meager human and financial resources committed to the task, at least before 2009.
Woodward insisted that Gates was “leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat” by suggesting the president had doubts about a policy that Gates admits was doomed from the beginning because of decisions before Obama was even elected… to the Senate.
Gates also levels one of the most serious compliments a defense secretary could make about a president in his superlative description of the president’s “most courageous” decision to go after Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The former secretary noted that the president was “determined from day one to win re-election,” thus political factors played into his choices, but were never “decisive.” He also suggests that President Obama, like President Bush, was aloof and uncommitted to forming relationships with Congress or foreign leaders.
The excerpt of Gates’ book, published in the Wall Street Journal, reserves its harshest critique for Vice President Joe Biden — who had been a vocal critic of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy — and the members of the House and Senate. He describes Congress as mostly “uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.”
Woodward spent two sentences on that actually harsh critique of the legislative branch.
The New York Times‘ Thom Shanker looked at Gates’ book and found that it was simply a “critique of the president,” whom the secretary depicts as a “rigorous” thinker. Shanker notes Gates’ frustration with the president quickly souring on his own Afghanistan policy. “For him, it’s all about getting out,” he quotes from Gates’ memoir.
That’s an opinion now shared by about 6 out of 10 Americans, which leads to Gates’ conclusion about President Obama. In the final chapter of his book, the man who has served every president since Reagan except Bill Clinton gives his verdict on the president’s strategy in Afghanistan: “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”
That is, if you’re Bob Woodward and you already decided what you were going to write before you even read Robert Gates’ book.