Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Robert Gates' criticisms reflect well on our Commander-in-Chief

Instead of being filtered through Bob Woodward's bias, today we have former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his own words via an excerpt of his book in the Wall Street Journal. One of the most interesting passages came when he was talking about the similarities between George W. Bush and President Obama.
Both, I believe, detested Congress and resented having to deal with it, including members of their own party.
But then two paragraphs down, Gates goes on to talk about what appears to be his biggest problem with Washington:
Congress is best viewed from a distance—the farther the better—because up close, it is truly ugly. 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.
Kinda makes you wonder who exactly it is that "detested Congress and resented having to deal with it." I'll grant you, it might be that they all have a point. But Gates can hardly critique the 2 presidents he worked for when he so obviously shares their disdain.

Perhaps even more significant, however, is the fact that Gates asserts that President Obama didn't trust senior military leaders.
Obama was respectful of senior officers and always heard them out, but he often disagreed with them and was deeply suspicious of their actions and recommendations.
And yet Gates himself is the one that tells us that right from the beginning of President Obama's first term, he had very good reason to be suspicious. From the Woodward article we saw that the President was angry when Petraeus leaked information to the press about his disagreement with the plan in Afghanistan. In this excerpt we learn what General McChrystal did just prior to that.
But I believe the major reason the protracted, frustrating Afghanistan policy review held in the fall of 2009 created so much ill will was due to the fact it was forced on an otherwise controlling White House by the theater commander's unexpected request for a large escalation of American involvement. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request surprised the White House (and me) and provoked a debate that the White House didn't want, especially when it became public. I think Obama and his advisers were incensed that the Department of Defense—specifically the uniformed military—had taken control of the policy process from them and threatened to run away with it.
Remember that both of these incidents involving senior military leaders (Petraeus and McChrystal) happened in the fall of 2009 at the very beginning of President Obama's first term. Even Gates acknowledges that these were attempts to put control of the policy process in the hands of the Generals rather than the Commander-in-Chief. And yet he still criticizes President Obama for being suspicious. It is actually a big concern to me that on two occasions in this short excerpt, Gates points out that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined him in this critique of the President. If she decides to run in 2016 it will be important to consider whether or not she would provide the kind of civilian oversight of the military that we should expect from our Commander-in-Chief.

Gates' big concern was that the non-military members of the administration were too controlling (ie, insisted on being part of the decision-making process). Early on he posits that this was about politics.
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.
Given that this administration walked into the threat of a second Great Depression, it should come as no surprise to anyone that domestic political considerations would be a factor in EVERY conversation. That would be necessary for both policy as well as political reasons. The fact that even Gates admits that these factors were never decisive in foreign policy matters should be viewed as a credit to the President and his administration.

Many of the things President Obama faced coming into office - including what to do in Afghanistan - were intractable problems that belied easy solutions. What we learn from Gates is a bit more about the tensions behind the scenes during that decision-making process. Going forward, we're likely to see some of the same tensions come into play as he continues efforts to end the war on al Qaeda, bring our troops home from Afghanistan, give diplomacy a chance in Iran, and reform the practices of the NSA.

In light of all that, I am reminded that a break from the U.S. hegemony of the past means that these foreign policy questions are going to be complicated and that any president will have to deal with the world as it is rather than as we want it to be. That will lead to both failures and successes. We must evaluate our Commander-in-Chief on how they manage the tensions that exist not only around the globe, but here at home - even within their own administration. And so contrary to what some are suggesting, I find that Gates' account enlightens us about the complexity involved in being this country's Commander-in Chief and I am once again impressed with the job President Obama is doing.


  1. Imagine... Barack Obama not trusting senior military leaders about Afghanistan. Why would he question their judgement? After all, senior military leaders were so prescient during another long war... Vietnam. But hey... what's another couple of thousand American lives lost or billions of dollars spent or our prestige damaged? We should always defer to grown men who strut around wearing medals on their chests.

  2. What a girly-man this POTUS is---- "leading from behind", letting military leaders know that he is the Commander Chief and that they working under HIM, not the other way around. When a man says something like, 'Bow down , bitches! I'M in charge HERE, you just start working on what I TELL you to work on"--- what kind of liver livered, metrosexual, elected executive acts like THAT. He ain't white. He ain't Republican. He ain't a warmongering asshat who would rather look tough and scary than solve actually problems.

    I tell ya, the white man just can't get a break these days. They might have to start washing their own stinking balls.


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