WASHINGTON — The White House is bristling over former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ new memoir accusing President Barack Obama of showing too little enthusiasm for the U.S. war mission in Afghanistan and sharply criticizing Vice President Joe Biden’s foreign policy instincts.
In a book set for release next week by the publishing house Knopf, Gates writes that Biden is “a man of integrity,” but also a political figure who has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Gates, a Republican, also slammed the National Security Council under Obama’s watch. The Republican cited what he called the “controlling nature” of the White House, writing that Obama’s national security team “took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that Gates’ account of confrontations at the White House over Afghanistan policy “is hardly news.”
Such tell-all books are not new to Washington and they’re woven into the city’s cultural fabric. In the inside-the-Beltway political culture, they burst into view, make a splash on TV, online and in the press and quickly fade. But in the case of the Gates book, the White House chose to speak out quickly and sharply.
The National Security Council issued a statement late Tuesday asserting that Obama relies on Biden’s “good counsel” every day and considers him “one of the leading statesmen of his time.” Not only that, the White House allowed news organization representatives to photograph Obama and Biden sitting together Wednesday at their weekly private luncheon.
Biden spoke animatedly to Obama as photographers were briefly escorted in to the private dining room just off the Oval Office. It was another sign that the president was not putting any distance between himself and Biden, though Carney said that the rare photo opportunity was not linked to the revelations in Gates’ book.
Former senior White House adviser David Axelrod said he was surprised when he heard about Gates’ book. “He (Gates) always indicated he had a good working relationship with the president,” Axelrod said on NBC’s “Today” show. And Bill Daley, who was Obama’s chief of staff during Gates’ tenure, said on CBS that the decision to publish the book while Obama was still president and a war still underway was “a disservice.”
In his memoir, Gates asserted that Obama showed a growing frustration with U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
“I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” Gates writes.
Carney flatly disputed that, declaring Wednesday, “the president believes thoroughly in the mission.”
He said reports about the book have been based on selected excerpts that are particularly critical of the White House. He then chose his own excerpt from Gates’ account in which the former defense secretary notes that Obama was criticized by conservatives for announcing that the troop surge in Afghanistan would wind down in the summer of 2011 and that he faced “grumbling” from the military on the limits of the troop surge. Gates writes: “I believe Obama was right in each of these positions.”
Obama approved the strategy of putting 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan and placing Gen. David Petraeus in charge, even though some top advisers opposed the so-called surge he announced in December 2009.
Recalling a meeting in the situation room in March 2011, Gates writes: “As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand (Afghan 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.”
Gates reveals he often found himself tempted to quit because of adversarial treatment he received from members of Congress. Gates served 4½ years as defense secretary, the last years of the George W. Bush administration and the first years of Obama’s.
Other assertions in the book:
—Gates said that in private, members of Congress could be reasonable. “But when they went into an open hearing, and the little red light went on atop a television camera, it had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf.”
—Gates recalls Obama and his secretary of state at the time, Hillary Rodham Clinton, discussing their opposition to Bush’s 2007 surge of troops in Iraq. “Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. ... The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”
—Gates at times criticizes the Bush administration as well as its successor. He holds the Bush administration, in which he also served as defense secretary, responsible for what he considered misguided policy that squandered the early victories in Afghanistan and Iraq.
—In praise of Obama, Gates calls the president’s decision to order Navy SEALs to raid a house in Pakistan believed to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”