Bob Gates’ ‘Duty’: Obama’s political wars at home and abroad

Bob Gates’ ‘Duty’: Obama’s political wars at home and abroad

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Robert Gates,
Robert Gates, "Duty" / Knopf

CHARLOTTEJanuary 17, 2014 – Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has created a firestorm with his new book, “Duty.” The famously dispassionate Gates (Obama insiders called him “Yoda”) writes up a storm in this memoir, expressing disappointment with Obama and amply displaying his contempt for Congress, President Obama’s inner circle, and most of all, Vice President Joe Biden.

In his book, Gates describes his service under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The book starts with Gates’ confirmation as Secretary of Defense, when he faced a hostile, Democratically-controlled Congress in confirmation hearings to replace the unpopular Donald Rumsfeld. He goes on to describe his dealings with Russia, China and Israel, the war in Iraq, and the transition from the Bush to the Obama Administration. He later describes his disappointment with the administration over “don’t ask don’t tell” and military budgets.

Though Gates’ picture of Obama is strongly tinged with respect, the picture he paints of the Obama Administration’s military and foreign policies is unflattering. The book contains bombshell insights into the president’s relationship with the military, and his inability to embrace his own policies in the Middle East.

Joe Biden comes in for special scorn. In the argument over when to remove surge troops from Afghanistan, Gates writes of Biden’s attacks on the integrity of America’s military leaders: “A White House insider told me he was telling the president, ‘They’ll screw you every time.’ Biden was said to be pushing Donilon really hard, accusing him of being ‘too fucking even-handed.’ I considered that a high compliment for a national security advisor.”

Biden argues at a meeting with Obama to remove the troops in July, 2012 rather than in September, “because the fighting season would still be underway in September and therefore finishing the surge then would be illogical. I didn’t ask what that would make a July withdrawal.” Suggestions that Biden is uncommonly dim seem not far off the mark.

In comments about the book, Lt. Col. Ralph Peters says there are no surprises in “Duty.” What Gates has done instead is provide corroboration at the highest level of what many outsiders have long suspected about the internal workings of the White House.

It has been observed frequently that Obama is arrogant and aloof in his dealings with Congress. He has always shown elitist disdain for the people he serves, but by holding Congress and foreign leaders in that same disdain, he has cut himself off from people whose help he needs to achieve his foreign policy objectives. That was starkly illustrated last summer, when he could summon no support either from Congress or from foreign leaders to punish Syria’s Assad regime for crossing his red line on chemical weapons.

If, as Gates observes, Obama “can’t trust his commander” and “can’t stand [Afghan President] Karzai,” neither is he able or willing to listen to anyone else outside his inner circle. This has impeded his effectiveness at every turn. From scandal to name calling to the verbal scolding of Americans, Obama’s ineptitude and lack of diplomacy has become a powerful drag on his administration.

Since the end of the war in Vietnam in 1975 and a decade in which military personnel were often viewed with contempt, Americans have become much more appreciative of the military and more eager to express their appreciation. Though he holds the title of “Commander in Chief,” there is little doubt that Obama remains mired in the thinking of his childhood. He does not hold the military in high regard.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton points out, “The real insight Gates provides is that President Obama simply is not concerned with American national security.”

Ralph Peters is even more blunt: “For the last five years, Obama has allowed our soldiers, Marines and Navy corpsmen to be killed or maimed in a war the president doesn’t believe makes sense or he doesn’t believe he can win; that is as low as any president in our history has gone.”

Gates’ revelations have impact beyond the current administration; they are also damning of Hillary Clinton, a potential presidential candidate who is herself a lightning rod of controversy. Gates praises Clinton, calling her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, and tough-minded, but her actions and public statements are as driven by politics and her desire to become president as Obama’s. Her intelligence and idealism have no solid core of conviction. Peters emphasizes that consecutive Barack/Hillary administrations in the White House would be more of the same. “Hillary and Obama opposed the surge in Iraq on purely political grounds.”

Gates sums up the politicization of policy in the Obama Administration with the observation, “agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient.”

Gates refers to an incident in which General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and later director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was angrily dressed down by President Obama in front of a number of administration officials during a National Security Council meeting. A double standard exists whereby Obama demands respect for his presidency, but is incapable of showing respect to others. The current leader of the free world is remarkably insecure and petty, despite his power.

Peters says of Obama and Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador to the U.N., “(they) use military as a personal tool to rescue hostile populations. This is tragic. The use of our military. The abuse of our military.”

Gates writes, “I did not enjoy being secretary of defense. As soldiers would put it, I had too many rocks in my rucksack: foreign wars, war with Congress, war with my own department, one crisis after another. Above all, I had to send young men and women in harm’s way.” Before he left the Obama Administration, he travelled to Afghanistan and spoke to the troops.

“More than anybody except the president, I’m responsible for you being here. I’m the person who signed the deployment papers that got you here, and that weighs on me every day. I feel your hardship and your sacrifice and your burden, and that of your families, more than you can possibly know. You are, I believe, the best our country has to offer. My admiration and affection for you is limitless, and each of you will be in my thoughts and prayers every day for the rest of my life.”

The release of Gates’ book has created a lot of Washington excitement. The White House and former administration officials will be uncomfortable with much of what Gates has to say, and he will come in for attack. His memoir is a fascinating look into an administration that, for all the intelligence it can sometimes muster, is filled with callow, self-serving, and above all politically driven men and women who feel no real connection to America, nor to the troops who serve with so little regard from their political masters.


Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (  

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