Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says his criticism of President Obama is more nuanced than media reports about his new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, would have you believe.
In a long and surprisingly frank interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, Gates talked about his relationship with the commander in chief and his rivalry with Vice President Joe Biden, and described a deep rift between the approaches of senior military leadership and Obama's young Cabinet.
Gates, the only secretary of defense in U.S. history to keep his job with a newly elected president, said Obama was always kind to him personally and that Obama always made "decisions based on what he thought was in the best interest of U.S. national security."
However, he said, he always felt Obama thought the military was trying to force his hand on certain decisions. Gates explained that early in Obama's first term, generals and other high-ranking officials were making public statements essentially saying their strategy was the only one that would work, leaving the impression that Obama had no other choices. The suspicion that resulted, Gates said, was only fueled by the president's Cabinet.
An example of that, Gates said, was the surge in Afghanistan. As we've reported, that's the part of Gates' book that has stirred the most controversy, because he implied that Obama lacked passion and approved the 2009 troop surge "believing the strategy would fail."
Gates said Obama didn't go into the surge believing it would fail; instead he was led to that belief by his Cabinet and especially by Biden.
That's when Steve asked Gates about perhaps the most explosive statement in his book: that Biden has been wrong about every foreign policy issue for 40 years.
"First of all, I think it's fair to say that particularly on Afghanistan, the vice president was my — he and I were on opposite sides of the fence on this issue.
"And he was in there advising the president every day. He was, I think, stoking the president's suspicion of the military. But the other side of it is, frankly, I believe it. The vice president, when he was a senator — a very new senator — voted against the aid package for South Vietnam, and the — that was part of the deal when we pulled out of South Vietnam to try and help them survive. He said that when the, when the Shah fell in Iran in 2009 — 1979, rather — that that was a step forward for progress toward human rights in Iran. He opposed virtually every element of President Reagan's defense buildup. He voted against the B-1, the B-2, the MX and so on. He voted against the first Gulf War. So on a number of these major issues, I just — I, frankly, over a long period of time, felt that he had been on the wrong — he'd been — I think he had been wrong."
Perhaps one of the more insightful parts of the interview was when Gates talked about the young members of Obama's National Security Council.
He described a clash of cultures in which those young members eschewed the chain of command. Gates, who has served under eight presidents and whose service dates back to 1966 when he joined the CIA, said he had a "different world outlook and a different experience."
Here's part of the exchange:
INSKEEP: You seem considerably less respectful of the president's staff than you were of the president himself.
GATES: Well, I had a lot of battles with those folks. And, frankly, my attitudes were shaped by the fact that I worked in the White House on the National Security Council staff and as deputy national security adviser for nearly nine years under four presidents. And I had certain ideas about how the national security staff and how the White House staff ought to comport themselves in discussions on national security and military issues. And let's just say that the way it worked under — in the Obama White House — was not anything like I had seen before.
I had worked for probably three of the most significant and toughest national security advisers in our history: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. And there were things that went on in the Obama White House that, under those three guys, I am confident would have been a firing offense, such as direct calls from NSC staff members to four-star generals and so on. That just wouldn't have been allowed.
INSKEEP: Oh, they should have gone through the chain of command, you think, or through the hierarchy?
GATES: Absolutely — absolutely.
INSKEEP: And they were effectively giving orders or going around their own nominal bosses on the staff? That's what you're saying?
GATES: Well, I think the key is what you said. They were going outside the chain of command. It's not appropriate for somebody on the National Security Council staff to be in direct contact with combatant commanders.
Gates did not lay all the blame on Obama and his Cabinet. He also talked about his failures.
"At the end of the book, I also point out that I think we all did a disservice to President Obama, because the debate on Afghanistan became so divisive that the opportunities to reach across those differences I think were missed," Gates said.
"I fault myself for not reaching out more to the vice president to see where we could find common ground, because at the end of the day, in a number of important respects, I don't think our positions were that far apart. But because of the environment, because of the suspicion, because of the — just the flavor of the debate and the difficulty between the Department of Defense and the National Security Council staff, I think that those edges were sharper than they needed to be, and that's partly my responsibility."
Much more of Steve's interview with Gates is on Monday's Morning Edition. Click here to find a local NPR member station that carries the program. We'll also post the as-aired version of the interview on this post. We've also posted a full transcript of the interview.
Update at 9:55 a.m. ET, Jan. 13: Now that the audio of Morning Edition's as-broadcast conversation with Gates is available, we've added it — in two parts, as they did on the radio. To simplify our layout, we've removed the small clips from the conversation that we posted earlier. Those moments are included in the Morning Edition clips.
Meanwhile, we've added a related post: Gates Says He Wept Each Evening Over Troops' Deaths.
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A much-debated memoir by former Defense Robert Gates still is not quite for sale, but that has not stopped widespread commentary about its contents. And this morning, we'll hear Gates describe it in his own words.
INSKEEP: Gates - who is Republican - took over the Defense Department late in the administration of President Bush. He remained for two-and-a-half years under President Obama.
Much of the early attention paid to this book is focused on Gates' complaints about the Obama White House and its, quote, "total focus on politics." Gates really did write that in the book called "Duty," but he points out that he wrote more, and tried for a nuanced portrait of the Democratic president.
ROBERT GATES: Domestic politics had a role in the debates about national security issues that I had not previously experienced. But I also go on to write that, at the end of the day, President Obama made decisions based on what he thought was in the best interests of U.S. national security. So his decisions to increase troops in Afghanistan were decisions taken against all of the advice of his domestic political advisers, White House staff and the vice president.
GREENE: But that early debate over whether to raise troops in Afghanistan also exposed a problem in the new administration. As defense secretary, Robert Gates was representing the military in administration debates.
INSKEEP: So he keenly felt a gap in trust between the president and military leaders.
GATES: What started to get things off track was the military leadership pressing for a substantial increase in the number of troops literally days after the Inauguration, and when it came to Afghanistan, fed a suspicion that the military was always trying to box the president in and force him into significant troop increases, and so on.
And so, looking back, I always tried, at the time, to persuade the president that this was no plot, that the military didn't have a plan, if you will, to try and box him in. And, frankly, I don't think I was ever able to persuade him that that was not the case.
INSKEEP: It's remarkable, this exchange that you record here on page 369. You're in a private meeting with the president and Admiral Mike Mullen, the president's top military adviser, and you quote the president asking a number of really direct questions: What is wrong? Is it the process? Are they - meaning the military - suspicious of my politics? Do they resent that I never served in the military? Do they think because I'm young that I don't see what they're doing? That's a remarkable series of questions to hear from a man who, outwardly, has always been quite confident.
GATES: Well, I think he was trying to figure out why the military was trying to put him in this position, trying to box him in.
INSKEEP: We should explain to people that, at this time, there were generals giving interviews, and testimony indicating that more troops were needed, particularly the commanding general in Afghanistan at the time. That's what we're talking about when we talk about the president feeling boxed in.
GATES: Well, and basically saying publicly that no other alternative would succeed.
INSKEEP: You seem considerably less respectful of the president's staff than you were of the president himself.
GATES: Well, I had a lot of battles with those folks. And frankly, my attitudes were shaped by the fact that I worked in the White House on the National Security Council staff and as deputy national security adviser for nearly nine years, under four presidents. And let's just say that the way it worked in the Obama White House was not anything like I had seen before.
I'd worked for probably three of the most significant and toughest national security advisers in our history: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. And there were things that went on in the Obama White House that, under those three guys, I'm confident would have been a firing offense, such as direct calls from NSC staff members to four-star generals, and so on. That just wouldn't have been allowed.
INSKEEP: Oh, they should have gone through the chain of command, you think, or through the hierarchy.
GATES: Absolutely, absolutely. Some of the young people in senior positions on the White House staff and the National Security Council staff had probably been in college or even in high school when I was the director of CIA. So we just had a different world outlook and a different experience.
INSKEEP: Have you been surprised by the strong response to the early reviews of this book, which you haven't said everything that's in the book, but have noted your criticism, in some cases, of the president, the vice president and others?
GATES: Well, frankly, the only thing that has really troubled me a little bit is that some people who have a narrative on Obama and the war got out there early with their take on what I've written, and I think shaped their discussion of the book to support their narrative of what had taken place.
INSKEEP: You're talking about the fact that you wrote that you felt the president lacked passion about the war in Afghanistan. Is that the comment you think was...
GATES: No. I think it was more focused, was the reporting that I felt he came to have doubts about, whether his own strategy could succeed. And I think that some of the early reporting suggested that he made the decision in December, November 2009, believing it wouldn't work. I don't believe that for a second. President Obama would never do that, in my view. I think when he made that decision in November 2009, he believed that strategy would work. I think through the course of 2010, in significant part, due to continuing pushing on him by the vice president and by others in the White House, his doubts about whether this strategy could succeed would grow, leading, ultimately, in March of 2011, to the comments that I made that I felt that the president didn't trust his commander, and didn't like Karzai and had lost faith in his own strategy.
INSKEEP: Why did you write that Vice President Biden, in your view, has been wrong about every many foreign policy issue for 40 years? That's a pretty scathing line.
GATES: Well, two things. First of all, I think it's fair to say that, particularly on Afghanistan, he and I were on opposite sides of the fence on this issue. And he was in there advising the president every day. He was, I think, stoking the president's suspicion of the military.
But the other side of it is, frankly, I believe it. The vice president, when he was a senator, a very new senator, voted against the aid package for South Vietnam that was part of the deal when we pulled out of South Vietnam, to try and help them survive. He said that when the shah fell in Iran in 1979, that that was a step forward - or progress towards human rights in Iran. He opposed virtually every element of President Reagan's defense buildup. He voted against the B-1, the B-2, the MX. He voted against the first Gulf War. So, on a number of these major issues, I just - I frankly, over a long period of time, I think he'd been wrong.
INSKEEP: Did you have any moment, when writing this book or preparing to publish it, of wondering if you really wanted to make all these remarks about a sitting president, particularly while a war is still underway?
GATES: You know, I did think about that, but the reality is if you look at the book as a totality, it's about war, it's about getting into wars, how you get out of wars, about the risks of launching military operations, whether it's in Libya or Syria or Iran. It's about dealing with China. It's about relations between the president and his senior military. It's about defense reform and how we ought to be spending our defense dollars. It's about the role of the Congress in all of this, and the impact of the dysfunction in Congress in all of these areas. These are all contemporary issues, and having worked for eight presidents and being a historian, I felt I had a unique perspective. And these issues are with us today. These are not issues that can wait to be written about in 2017. And so that's the reason that I decided to go forward with the book.
INSKEEP: You're very media-savvy. You must have known some of the lines that would get attention. Did you have a moment of hovering over the delete key and almost deleting them?
GATES: And actually did on several occasions.
INSKEEP: That's former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. His new book is called "Duty," and a bit later, we'll hear why Gates left the Pentagon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.