White House Photo by Pete Souza

Gates: I Was More Loyal to Obama Than His Own Staff

The former defense secretary says he got along well with Tom Donilon, President Obama's former National Security Advisor, but questions the loyalty of other White House staffers. By Michael Hirsh

Tom Donilon, the national security advisor who is occasionally criticized by Robert Gates in his tell-all book, says that the former Defense secretary actually aired all his grievances fully in meetings at the White House and elsewhere, and the two of them worked well together in the end.

"I have to say I don't see anything that Sec. Gates says in the book that he didn't raise as an issue at the time," Donilon told National Journal in a phone interview. "The issues we addressed were difficult and obviously intensive discussions, and Sec. Gates says he believes the decisions were better as a result of the process."

In his book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, Gates writes of frequent frictions between his Pentagon and the White House, and of this worry and frustration as Obama expressed doubts about his ongoing Afghanistan "surge." Early reports about the book, especially in The Washington Post, suggested that Obama was an unsteady leader who was misleading the American public by committing troops to a strategy he never believed in, and that Gates was seething with previously unexpressed frustration when he wrote it. "From the excerpts of the memoir that have been released, Gates emerges as a petulant, inhibited man who ill-served his president and the national interest by keeping his anger and concerns bottled up instead of raising them in person, at the time when it might have done his country some good," Sarah Chayes, who worked on high-level Afghan policy as a special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. 

Since publication, however Gates sought to correct the record, saying any doubts that Obama expressed about Afghanistan came after the surge was ordered, not before.

(Read more of Defense One's coverage on Robert Gates' memoir here)

And at a breakfast meeting with reporters on Friday, Gates effectively agreed with Donilon's assessment that he had raised all of his concerns at the time the administration was making critical decisions on Afghanistan and other issues. Gates said "there wasn't a single issue" he didn't raise in office that he addressed later in his book, whether about Afghanistan, Iraq, European missile defense or the administration's program of "outreach" to Iran. Gates added: "I agreed with him [Obama] on all those things. My continuing concerns were more process concerns. I did raise those all the time with Tom Donilon,[former National Security Advisor] Jim Jones and others. … Until we got to Egypt and [the intervention in] Libya, which were in the last few months of my tenure, I very explicitly said in the book that I supported every single one of the president's decisions."

Gates also reaffirmed his admiration for President Obama, as he has done frequently in recent days. He again went out of his way to praise Obama's personal qualities as president, saying he has never before seen someone who had never run a major organization "take so quickly to making executive decisions." 

Still, Gates made clear he still does not trust some of the officials around Obama. "I think I was more loyal to him than some in his own White House sometimes," said Gates. Citing the resurrection of al-Qaida-linked groups in Iraq following the full departure of U.S. troops in 2011, he warned that Vice President Joe Biden's focus on a minimal presence in Afghanistan or "zero" option would be a "serious strategic mistake." Gates added: "I'm hearing there is still a large number of people in the White House who just want to pull the plug on Afghanistan altogether and just get the hell out and leave no residual force, and I think that would be a terrible mistake."

One constant theme of Gates' book is what he saw as unseemly interference in the chain of command by White House officials, specifically by Donilon. Responding to one point of criticism in the book, when Donilon raised questions about the performance of a U.S. general in Haiti -- which Gates says almost caused him to walk out of the room—the former national security advisor said that he and the Defense secretary sorted out all their issues in the end. "I have tremendous respect for the military, but you would expect the president's representative to press the president's priorities hard," Donilon said.

Gates, asked whether he and his publisher had misjudged by giving an exclusive on the book to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, who in his initial article on the book emphasized the small areas of disagreement between Gates and Obama and described it as "an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president," Gates avoided answering directly, saying,  "I'll leave that up to my publishers."