WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama eventually lost faith in the troop increase he ordered in Afghanistan, his doubts fed by top White House civilian advisers opposed to the strategy, who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing, according to his former defense secretary, Robert M. Gates.
In a new memoir, Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served for two years under Obama, praises the president as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats.” But Gates says that by 2011, Obama began expressing his own criticism of the way his strategy in Afghanistan was playing out.
At a pivotal meeting in the situation room in March 2011, Gates said, Obama opened with a blast of frustration over his Afghan policy — expressing doubts about Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander he had chosen, and questioning whether he could do business with the Afghan president, 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 writes. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”
“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” is the first book describing those years written from inside the Cabinet. Gates offers more than 600 pages of detailed history of his personal wars with Congress, the Pentagon bureaucracy and, in particular, Obama’s White House staff over the 4 1/2 years he sought to salvage victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The “controlling nature” of the Obama White House and the national security staff “took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level,” Gates writes.
Under Obama, the national security staff was “filled primarily by former Hill staffers, academics and political operatives” with little experience in managing large organizations. The national security staff became “increasingly operational,” which resulted in “micromanagement of military matters — a combination that had proven disastrous in the past.”
A former CIA director who served eight presidents in all, Gates is most critical of what he views as the inappropriate growth in size and power of the National Security Council staff.
Gates describes his running policy battles within Obama’s inner circle, among them Vice President Joe Biden; Tom Donilon, who served as national security adviser; and Douglas E. Lute, the Army lieutenant general who managed Afghan policy issues at the time.
Gates calls Biden “a man of integrity,” but he questions the vice president’s judgment.
“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Gates writes.
He discloses that he almost quit after a dispute-filled meeting with these advisers over Afghan policy in September 2009.
“I was deeply uneasy with the Obama White House’s lack of appreciation — from the top down — of the uncertainties and unpredictability of war,” he recalls. “I came closer to resigning that day than at any other time in my tenure, though no one knew it.”
Gates is a bipartisan critic of the two presidents he served as defense secretary, George W. Bush and Obama. He holds the Bush administration responsible for misguided policy that squandered the early victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, although he credits Bush for ordering a troop surge in Iraq that contributed to averting collapse of the mission.
And he notes that only he and Bush’s second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, pressed forcefully to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, with little result.
Gates does not spare himself from criticism, going beyond the typical political autobiography designed to sell as a kiss-and-tell narrative or to burnish a questionable legacy.
He describes how he came to feel “an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility” for the troops he ordered into combat, which left him misty-eyed when discussing their sacrifices — and perhaps clouded his judgment when coldhearted national security interests were at stake.
In opposing military action in Libya, for example, he told participants in a White House meeting that the United States should end its current wars before sending U.S. men and women in uniform off to start a new one. He was overruled.
He initially opposed sending Special Operations forces to attack a housing compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was believed to be hiding. Gates writes that Obama’s approval for the Navy SEAL mission, despite strong doubts that bin Laden even was there, was “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”
Gates reveals the depth of Obama’s concerns over leaks of classified information to news outlets, noting that within his first month in office, the new president said he wanted a criminal investigation into disclosures on Iran policy published by The New York Times.
Gates, too, ordered a campaign to stamp out unauthorized disclosures but grew rankled when White House officials always blamed the Pentagon for leaks.
“Only the president would acknowledge to me he had problems with leaks in his own shop,” Gates writes.
He has especially high praise for Obama’s former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But stinging assessments were aimed at Capitol Hill. In private, members of Congress could be calm, thoughtful and insightful.
“But when they went into an open hearing, and the little red light went on atop a television camera, it had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf,” he adds.
And he is no less critical of the institution he managed. The military services were too focused on protecting their own budgets and future missions, and he describes how he had to break traditional procurement chains to rush armored vehicles to troops to protect them from improvised explosives, additional helicopters to evacuate the wounded and more drones for surveillance.
Gates, who began public service as an Air Force intelligence officer, tells of emotional meetings with troops in combat, with those who suffered horrific wounds and with their families.
He writes that he is to be buried in Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60, the final home for many killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The greatest honor possible would be to rest among my heroes for all eternity,” Gates writes in closing his memoir.