Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican that President Obama asked to stay on in that position after the 2008 election, has a new book out that apparently makes some rather incoherent criticisms of the president. Greg Jaffe has a review of the book in the Washington Post. One of the odd positions he evidently takes is that while Obama was right in his decisions about the war in Afghanistan, he just wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic about it.
He recounts his thoughts during a tense 2011 meeting with Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in the White House Situation Room: “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. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
The critique will infuriate the parents and spouses of troops who were killed trying to execute Obama’s Afghan war strategy. But Gates doesn’t prove his damning accusation and can be maddeningly self-contradictory in his criticism of Obama. He describes the president’s decision to send 33,000 more troops to Afghanistan as courageous and politically unpopular. “Obama overruled the policy and domestic political concerns of his vice president and virtually all the senior White House staff,” Gates writes. Why would the president pursue a politically unpopular strategy that he believed would fail? Gates never attempts to explain the contradiction.
Though he decries Obama’s White House staff as the “most centralized and controlling” since the Nixon administration, he offers little substantive criticism of the president’s big decisions on Afghanistan. Hawkish Republicans and some in the military slammed Obama for putting firm limits on the number of troops he was willing to send to Afghanistan and for setting a withdrawal date, saying the timelines and troop caps betrayed a lack of resolve and emboldened the enemy. Gates, however, dismisses this argument, writing, “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”
Gates’s problem with the president is less about strategy or substance than about heart. “I myself, our commanders, and our troops had expected more commitment to the cause and more passion for it from him,” Gates writes. He compares Obama unfavorably with Bush, who “had no second thoughts about Iraq, including our decision to invade.”
Rod Dreher, one of the most reasonable voices on the right, finds this absolutely baffling:
Is it just me, or is this nuts? Obama’s judgment of the sleazy Karzai was correct, Obama knew the war was unwinnable, Gates thinks Obama made the right calls — but he faults the president for not being a True Believer? As if George W. Bush’s unwillingness to reassess American strategy in light of cold, hard experience is a sign of wisdom and character! I suppose Gates has a point if he’s faulting Obama for pursuing a military strategy that he (the president) didn’t believe in, but does Gates believe that an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan would have been the better strategy, even if it had been politically feasible (which it may not have been)?
It’s really a weird criticism.