When Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” came out in 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged there had been strong debate within the Obama national security team but did not provide any details.
Instead he said the team had moved forward to implement the debate and described “the relationship among senior officials in this administration is as harmonious as any I’ve experienced in my time in government.”
While Gates’ new book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” continues to praise President Obama and other members of his team, it also provides negative details about his thoughts at the time that contradict the positive thoughts about them.
Woodward’s book described Gates as once telling then-National Security Adviser Jim Jones that his deputy Tom Donilon would be a “disaster” if he took over Jones’ job. Gates never confirmed the quote directly and on Oct. 8, 2010, when Donilon did replace Jones, Gates told reporters “I have and have had a very productive and very good working relationship with Tom Donilon, contrary to what you may have read. And I look forward to continue to working with him.”
But in his memoir, Gates confirms the account in Woodward’s book and details an incident where in the Oval Office, Donilon made disparaging comments to the president about a general that enraged Gates.
“My initial instinct was to storm out, telling the President on the way that he didn’t need two Secretaries of Defense. It took every bit of my self-discipline to stay seated on the sofa,” Gates writes in the memoir.
Also in his book, Gates describes Vice President Joe Biden as “an honorable man” but at the same time asserts that he was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the last two decades.”
In his book, Gates calls Hillary Clinton “smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague and a superb representative of the United States all over the world,” but then goes on to tell an anecdote about how he was dismayed when Clinton “told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary.”
At other points in the book, he questions President Obama’s leadership and handling of certain defense issues. But in the same breath he calls the president “very thoughtful and analytical, but he is also quite decisive.”
Gates wrote, “The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”
At a Pentagon press briefing on Sept. 23, 2010, Gates said he had anticipated getting a question about Woodward’s book, which had been released the day before. He volunteered the following : “Since I figured I’d — we’d get a question on this book, there are actually three points I’d like to make. The first is, conflict sells.”
He added, “The second, the relationship among senior officials in this administration is as harmonious as any I’ve experienced in my time in government. And the third is — and I believe this very strongly — presidents are always well served when there is a vigorous and spirited debate over important issues. And I felt that the debate with respect to Afghanistan was instructive. I learned things in the course of that debate. My positions changed, or were adjusted, or I adjusted them at various points. So I thought it was a constructive process.”
When a reporter asked Gates if it was preferable to have books like Woodward’s expose how top policy makers wrestle with difficult matters or “would you prefer to be operating in the dark?” Gates replied with a laugh, “I think the safest answer to that is ‘no comment.’”
An incident Gates describes in his book would seem to indicate his preference would have been to keep those matters private.
“I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting. To his very closest advisers, he said, ‘For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decisions about Israel or Iran. Joe you be my witness.’ I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.”
But, of course, Gates did just that — write a 640-page memoir about sensitive matters.