By David S. Cloud
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — President Obama became progressively more pessimistic about prospects for a successful ending to the war in Afghanistan, goaded by inexperienced White House advisers and a dislike of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, according to his former defense secretary, Robert M. Gates.
In a forthcoming memoir that mixes strong praise with scathing criticism for Obama and his administration, Gates says Obama doubted his own policy after he decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan early in his first term. The president became "skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail," a stance that Gates says led him to consider resigning in September 2009.
Gates was named defense secretary by President George W. Bush and was kept on by Obama for two years. He was at the center of major national security debates from 2006 to 2011, including the U.S. troop increases in Afghanistan and Iraq; the decision to carry out a Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden’s suspected hideout; U.S. involvement in the air war in Libya; and the lifting of the ban on gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
"Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War" provides a glimpse inside the Obama White House, which has long sought to keep its internal deliberations out of public view and to project an image of smooth-running efficiency. Gates’ version is far less flattering.
By early 2010, Gates writes, a "chasm" had opened between the White House and Pentagon leadership. He recalled moments of deep "anger," "frustration" and even "disgust" at the way advisers around Obama dealt with him and uniformed military officers.
He recounts sitting in a White House meeting in March 2011 in which Obama sharply criticized Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander he had chosen to turn around the Afghan war, and voiced deep skepticism about working with 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. For him it’s all about getting out," Gates writes in the 640-page book, which goes on sale Jan. 14. The Los Angeles Times obtained an early copy.
Petraeus later resigned as head of the CIA after a sex scandal. And the Obama administration is in bitter negotiations with Karzai over whether U.S. troops can remain in Afghanistan after the end of this year.
Despite his cutting portrayal of deliberations on Afghanistan, Gates concedes that, in the end, "national interest had trumped politics as the president made a tough decision that was contrary to the advice of his political advisors."
The White House sought to play down Gates' harsh comments. In a statement, spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Obama "deeply appreciates Bob Gates’ service" and "welcomes differences of view among his national security team, which broaden his options and enhance our policies."
In one example of those differences, Gates called Obama’s decision to order the Bin Laden raid, despite doubts about whether the Al Qaeda leader was at the compound in Abbottabad, "one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House."
Gates had favored using heavy bombers to obliterate the compound. The option was less risky because it did not involve putting troops on the ground, but might have left doubts about whether Bin Laden was in fact killed.
Gates writes that, unlike Bush, Obama lacked "passion, especially when it came to the two wars."
"I worked for Obama longer than Bush and I never saw his eyes well up," Gates writes. "The only military matter, apart from leaks, about which I ever sensed deep passion on his part was 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' " the law prohibiting gays from serving openly in the military that Obama successfully pushed to repeal.
Gates is less critical of Bush overall, saying they were "in lockstep on strategy with respect to Iraq, Iran and other important issues" after Bush named him to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief in late 2006.
Bush was willing to disagree with his military advisers but he did not question their motives or mistrust them, Gates writes. Obama was "respectful" of senior officers but often disagreed with them and was "deeply suspicious of their actions and their recommendations."
Gates takes special aim at some of Obama’s top advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden. Biden, he charges, "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issues over the past four decades."
Obama worried that top Pentagon officers, including Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, were giving him "the bum's rush" in pressing for more troops in Afghanistan early in his first term, Gates says. He blamed Biden, among other aides, for that.
The White House defended Biden in its statement, saying Obama "disagrees with Secretary Gates’ assessment" of the vice president.
"Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America's leadership in the world. President Obama relies on his good counsel every day," Hayden said.
Gates says relatively little about Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of State while he was at the Pentagon. But in one passage that could raise problems for her if she runs for president in 2016, Gates alleges that she conceded privately in a meeting with him and Obama that her opposition to sending more troops to Iraq had been "political because she was facing" Obama in the Iowa primary in 2008.
At the same meeting, Gates implies that Obama also admitted that he opposed the Iraq troop surge as a political ploy.
"The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political," he writes. "To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying."
At times, Gates seems to unburden himself from years of pent-up anger and frustration at Washington's grinding politics.
That included Congress’ treatment of him. Lawmakers could be reasonable in private, he said. “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 concedes that the pressures of managing two wars at a time when thousands of U.S. troops were killed and wounded took a deep toll on his psyche. He feared that his concern for the well-being of the troops was affecting his judgment, a concern that led to his decision to resign.
"My fuse was really getting short," he writes. "It seemed like I was blowing up — in my own quiet way — nearly every day."