WASHINGTON – President Barack 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 Gates.
In a forthcoming memoir that mixes strong praise with scathing criticism of Obama and his administration, Gates says the president doubted his own policy after he decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan early in his first term. Obama became “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” a stance that led Gates 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 against Osama bin Laden’s suspected hideout in Pakistan, U.S. involvement in the air war in Libya, and the lifting of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” provides a rare 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 he and uniformed military officers were dealt with by advisers around Obama.
He recounts sitting in a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama sharply criticized Gen. David Petraeus, the commander the president 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 Tuesday.
Petraeus later became head of the CIA but resigned 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 the 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 advisers.”
The White House sought to play down Gate’s 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-Qaida founder was at the compound in Abbottabad, “one of the most courageous decisions (he) 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 troops on the ground, but might have left doubts about whether bin Laden was killed.
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 issue 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.