White House Photo by Pete Souza

The Day Bob Gates Almost Quit

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates praises and criticizes Obama, while revealing a deep exasperation for national security politics. By Kevin Baron

In a new and highly-anticipated memoir of his time as Pentagon chief, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates both celebrates and questions President Barack Obama’s national security leadership of the Afghanistan war, military intervention into Libya, and making the historic decision to attack Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound, according to published reports.

Gates, now retired from public service, also finally lets down his public guard to reveal what privately many of those close to him during his final years in office knew: that one of the country’s most extraordinary and devoted public servants became bitter and angry with the final administration he served and perhaps his most hated adversary: Congress.

In a key exchange from “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” Gates wrote that in September 2009 after one contentious White House meeting, he almost resigned. “I came closer to resigning that day than at any other time in my tenure, though no one knew it.”

In passages cited by both The Washington Post and The New York Times, Gates said that later in March 2010, Obama warned him, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. David Petraeus about speaking to the media. Petraeus had long been criticized in military circles for seeking the media spotlight too eagerly for a general. Gates said he felt Obama was “disrespectful” to Petraeus -- Gates was a major Petraeus supporter at the time, having personally recommended the general take over the Afghanistan war -- but at that moment Gates believed the president no longer believed in his own war plan.

“As I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] 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,” according to the Post’s Bob Woodward’s account of the book.

Gates also criticizes the “controlling nature” of the White House, according to the Times, and recounts frustrations with national security staff populated by think tank academics and Capitol Hill staffers, rather than bureaucrats trained to run large government institutions. Gates said the level of involvement by White House top staffers in national security decisions was unprecedented to him, but he was not uncomfortable with it. “I joined a new, inexperienced president determined to change course—and equally determined from day one to win re-election. Domestic political considerations would therefore be a factor, though I believe never a decisive one, in virtually every major national security problem we tackled,” according to an excerpt published by the Wall Street Journal.

It’s a notable criticism given the concerted effort by Democrats to build a stable of qualified, young national security leaders out of think tanks such as the Center for a New American Security and the Truman National Security Project who populated key Defense Department, White House and intelligence agency positions during Obama’s first term. 

“In ‘Duty,’ Gates describes his outwardly calm demeanor as a facade. Underneath, he writes, he was frequently ‘seething’ and ‘running out of patience on multiple fronts,’” according to Woodward.

Gates writes, “So why did I feel I was constantly at war with everybody? Why was I so often so angry? Why did I so dislike being back in government and in Washington? It was because, despite everyone being ‘nice’ to me, getting anything consequential done was so damnably difficult—even in the midst of two wars.”

“Duty” is scheduled for Jan. 14 release. Gates also praises Obama for deciding to attack Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound without concrete proof the al Qaeda leader was actually there.

According to the Times’ Thom Shanker, Gates also recounts how he developed a deep emotional attachment to the U.S. troops that fought and died under his orders. Gates reveals his desire to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60, where the war dead of Iraq and Afghanistan rest.

That may reflect Gates’ ultimate legacy to the United States -- one that is more readily associated to the current defense secretary, Chuck Hagel -- which is a renewed deeper hesitation to use military force in modern times.

“Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort,” Gates writes. “On the left, we hear about the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do -- and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.”