Last night, I thought perhaps we were making too much of former defense secretary Robert Gates’s criticisms of the Obama administration. Today, after reading the adaptation of his book published in the Wall Street Journal, I’ve changed my mind. The essay, fittingly titled “The Quiet Fury of Robert Gates,” scorches nearly everything in Washington, with particular fire reserved for the Obama administration.
On Obama and Afghanistan:
I witnessed a good deal of wishful thinking in the Obama administration about how much improvement we might see with enough dialogue with Pakistan and enough civilian assistance to the Afghan government and people. When real improvements in those areas failed to materialize, too many people—especially in the White House—concluded that the president's entire strategy, including the military component, was a failure and became eager to reverse course.
On Obama in comparison to Bush:
With Obama, however, 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.
I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country.
On liberal internationalism and neoconservatism:
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….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.
President Bush always detested the notion, but our later challenges in Afghanistan—especially the return of the Taliban in force by the time I reported for duty—were, I believe, significantly compounded by the invasion of Iraq. Resources and senior-level attention were diverted from Afghanistan.
Gates’s essay suggests a non-ideological man who tried to accomplish his goals, but was hampered for years by bureaucratic Washington and forced to bottle up his frustrations. Critical memoirs by former administration officials can do a lot of damage. (Remember the book by hapless former White House press secretary Scott McClellan that trashed the Bush administration, pompously titled What Happened? The media buzzed about it for months.) Needless to say, the White House is already rejecting Gates’s criticisms with the sort of we-appreciate-his-service/screw-him statement typical in Washington.
Gates’s memoir, if we can judge it by this excerpt, is no McClellan hack job; it’s a substantive examination of real problems. Given the state of our foreign policy and the world—Fallujah under Islamist occupation, chaos in Syria, rotating dictatorships in Egypt, a wildly unpopular Afghanistan war—his critical insider look at our foreign policy should at least merit our attention.
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