Skip to main content

Why Gates and Obama didn't see eye to eye

By David Rothkopf
January 9, 2014 -- Updated 0421 GMT (1221 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: New book by ex-Defense Secretary Gates criticizes Obama, others
  • Reports: Gates writes that Obama lacked conviction on own Afghanistan policies
  • He says Gates also says Obama "right" on Afghanistan strategy
  • Rothkopf: Gates narrative reflects intractable problem of U.S. overreach in region

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and Editor of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @djrothkopf.

(CNN) -- It is easy to be confused by the welter of headlines and selective excerpts that have been leaked from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' upcoming book "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War." (I have not yet read the book.)

Gates asserts President Obama lacked conviction about his own decision to put more troops in harm's way in Afghanistan. As described in the Bob Woodward summary of the book in the Washington Post, Gates writes that the Commander-in-Chief was "skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail." He also condemns what he saw as "suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials — including the president and the vice president."

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

In one meeting about Afghanistan in particular, Gates said that after listening to the President, he concluded, "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."

He is particularly brutal about Vice President Joe Biden, who Gates asserts "poisoned the well" against U.S. military leaders, and who he says "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." Gates also doesn't mince words about top officials like former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon or key Obama adviser Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute.

At the same time, Gates commends Obama's intelligence and character, his decision to go after Osama bin Laden, and in his concluding chapter, according to the New York Times account of the book, as far as the President's overall Afghanistan strategy he writes, "I believe Obama was right in each one of these decisions." He also has strong praise for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mixed in with his lengthy expressions of frustrations with others in the administration and in Washington, notably the dysfunctional crowd on Capitol Hill.

Compounding the apparent dissonance within Gates' narrative, there is another conflict to reconcile. Gates is a man known for bipartisanship, discretion and keeping his own counsel, and yet he is blasting a sitting President that he served, and revealing details of private and off-the-record exchanges without apparent regard for confidentiality, and in a manner that is sure to be politicized.

It might be easy to dismiss his account — as some, seeking to defend the President, already have done on Twitter and in the blogosphere — as so contradictory as to not be credible. But that would be a mistake. Gates is one of the most distinguished, most widely respected national security public servants the U.S. has produced in half a century. In addition to running the Pentagon for both Obama and President George W. Bush, he ran the CIA and was Deputy National Security Adviser. He is exceptionally intelligent, committed and few can rival his experience or perspective.

Book: CIA used torture to get intel
Terror suspect Al-Majed dies in custody
U.S. sends Iraq rockets to fight al Qaeda

No, the contradictions in Gates' comments do not invalidate them. Rather, they illustrate important facts. In the first place, they reveal Washington and policy making as they are: Very little is clear cut, and personalities and politics play as big a role in key decisions as do any objective analysis of the merits of any decision. People — including presidents and secretaries of Defense — can be contradictory bundles of good and bad qualities, advocates for decisions that are both right and wrong.

But on a deeper level, Gates' narrative is conflicted because he is writing about issues, such as Afghanistan, in which there were literally no good answers. Perhaps, in the very first phases of our engagement there, there was a "best possible path." We could have gone in, sought retribution for 9/11, attacked and killed our attackers and then gotten out.

The problem became our desire to reduce in a much more sweeping and lasting way the threat posed by al Qaeda, the Taliban, extremists and instability in the region. This led to a long-term commitment in a place where there were no long term "solutions" — indeed, the threats posed by extremists are problems that cannot be "solved;" they can only be reduced and managed, never eradicated.

But once we were into Afghanistan for anything but retaliation, we ended up debating two deeply flawed alternatives. Either we committed significant numbers of troops indefinitely — which would be costly, politically unpopular and unlikely to succeed in doing anything but moving terrorists elsewhere. Or we would pull out and the situation would return to the chaos the region, becoming once again a Petri dish for terror. As it turned out, we will end up demonstrating at great cost that neither approach could work.

Gates and the military were right that only an extended military presence could control our enemies on the ground. Biden and his allies were right that getting out sooner would have the same effect as getting out in the medium term. And both will soon see that in Afghanistan — as in Iraq today and in our War on Terror more broadly — our costly investment and that of our brave troops will not change the region for the better. Indeed, right now it looks as if Afghanistan and Iraq are likely to end up worse than we found them, and the sway of al Qaeda and extremists more widespread and powerful.

All this is because before Gates and Obama got into office, a fundamentally wrong decision was made by their immediate predecessors. We overreacted to 9/11, seeking not justice but to change the world and a volatile region in ways that were beyond our capabilities.

And the battles and tensions revealed among good men and women in the Gates account and others being written of the recent past are the legacy of that watershed error.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT