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Robert Gates Book Portrays Obama as a Different Kind of President

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Like just about everybody else in Washington and many across the country, I've been reading the excerpts from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War .

It presents a significantly more negative picture of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton than Gates' statements in office led anyone to expect.

And it presents an interesting contrast with Gates' previous memoir, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War , published in 1996.

To be sure, Gates in Duty says many positive things about his most recent former colleagues. He calls Obama's decision to target Osama bin Laden the "most courageous" presidential decision he has seen.

He praises Clinton's judgment, her sense of humor and her penchant for hard work. Though he doesn't make the point explicitly in the excerpt, the secretary of state and secretary of defense weren't constant and mistrustful antagonists.

But he also presents some damning testimony. Listening to Obama soon after he had ordered a surge of troops into Afghanistan, "I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand (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."

If this is not cynical enough, he is shocked that Clinton and Obama admit that their opposition to the Iraq surge was politically motivated -- in the presence of Gates, who was in the chain of command on the surge and helped make it work.

As for Vice President Joe Biden, Gates writes that he "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy issue" over four decades. And he expresses even more angry contempt for congressional leaders.

Gates wrote Duty after leaving government with no intention or expectation of ever returning. But he wrote From the Shadows , published in 1996, in similar circumstances.

He had risen quickly from a junior Russia analyst at the CIA to positions at the National Security Council in the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and first Bush administrations. He was nominated to be CIA director in 1986, but withdrew in the face of congressional opposition; he was nominated again for the post and confirmed in 1991.

In From the Shadows he does not always fawn on the leaders he served. "No stranger man in American history" is his verdict on Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan "began to fade a bit beginning in late 1985-early 1986."

He has especially warm praise for George H.W. Bush and his foreign policy team, and notes that Bush had almost a familial relationship with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft (as George W. Bush would later have with Condoleezza Rice).

He sees Secretary of State James Baker as "a master craftsman of the persuasive and backroom arts at the peak of his powers," but notes that he "demanded more loyalty of the president than he gave in return."

Even more notable than the individual portraits in From the Shadows is Gates' argument that there was far more continuity in American foreign policy during the presidencies in which he served than was suggested by partisan rhetoric.

In this view, Nixon's detente with Russia was sealed by Ford's Helsinki Accords, whose human rights provisions were built on by Carter, who began the defense buildup accelerated by Reagan, whose negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev provided the basis for Bush's management of the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Presidents were constantly buffeted from the Right and Left by members of Congress, but, Gates argues, if the process was unpleasant, the results were usually benign.

In the excerpts from Duty , Gates seems to take a similar view of George W. Bush, a "mature leader" who on the Iraq surge "risked reputation, public esteem, credibility, political ruin and the judgment of history on a single decision he believed was the right thing for the country."

But the excerpts suggest that Gates sees Obama out of line with the continuity he admires in his predecessors.

Clinton and Obama's cynical opposition to the Iraq surge and Obama's half-hearted commitment to his Afghanistan strategy are in jarring contrast with his description in "Shadows of Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush I.

"For each," he writes, "the country came first," and "each, in his own way, was a modest man." Let's see if in the full text of Duty he says the same of Obama.

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