WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama’s “team of rivals” first-term cabinet has come back to haunt him, following surprisingly blunt critiques of his leadership and top aides by ex-Pentagon boss Robert Gates.
Gates, the Washington Republican lifer who served six presidents in senior national security jobs, sent political shockwaves through Washington after his unsparing assessments of the Obama administration in his new book, leaked to top newspapers.
Tell-all memoirs by former administration officials looking to gild their retirement nest eggs and bolster their own legacies are nothing new — and uniformly infuriate presidents and top subordinates whichever party runs the White House.
But the Gates bombshell was so remarkable because of the pedigree of the former defense secretary and CIA chief, his long experience as a confidant of presidents, and his reputation for unruffled integrity and discretion.
So it is more difficult for the White House to write off the book — “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War” — due to be published on January 14, as a typical episode of Washington score settling.
It may be that privately, despite taking the high ground in public, White House officials are second-guessing the president’s decision to ask Gates, a Republican holdover from the George W. Bush administration, to stay on as defense secretary in his first cabinet.
Given the deep respect Obama appears to have for Gates, and a belief that they were on the same page strategically on many issues, the revelations may be personally hurtful to the president.
In the most damaging revelations, Gates suggests Obama soured on his own troop surge strategy in Afghanistan and lost confidence in General David Petraeus and other military brass he picked to lead it.
Gates also slams White House aides for obsessive attempts to control all US national security and foreign policy to the detriment of the State Department and the Pentagon, and excerpts from his book reek of a deep distaste for Washington and its political games.
In comments which could reverberate in the 2016 presidential campaign, he says Hillary Clinton told Obama that she only opposed a troop surge strategy in Iraq for political reasons during the heat of their primary battle.
He also blasted Vice President Joe Biden as “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue” of the last four decades.
The political gang that Gates so disdained was out in the president’s defense on Wednesday.
“He always indicated he had a good working relationship with the president,” David Axelrod, a former top Obama aide who remains close to the president, told NBC.
Axelrod also argued that the Afghan war strategy — for which Gates was partly responsible — was “a mess” when Obama took office in 2009.
Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley said on CBS that Gates’s memoir was “rather unfortunate,” adding that it was a “disservice” to publish such a book while the administration was still fighting the Afghan war.
Many of Gates’s critiques are not new in themselves — and have been floating around the Obama White House for years.
But Gates’ stature gives them extra currency and they are likely to linger in the political discourse in Washington for years, and in the histories that will shape Obama’s legacy after he leaves office.
While Gates said plenty of positive things about Obama — calling him a man of “integrity” and praising him for gutsy decision to order a raid to kill Osama bin Laden — and Clinton — who he sees as smart, and a great ambassador for America abroad — it is the criticisms that will likely be remembered.
His narrative also appears to reflect typical fighting over turf between the White House and Pentagon — as Obama aides sought to wrestle back what they saw as executive authority appropriated by the military during the Bush administration.
The furor over Gates will be an unwelcome distraction for the White House as it sets about trying to rebuild Obama’s personal brand after a brutal year.
It will also offer ammunition against Obama’s foreign policy record, once seen as an area of strength that has come under fire as a sectarian war rages across the Middle East and Iraq descends into civil war two years after he pulled the last US soldiers from the country.
The White House offered a detailed rebuttal to the Gates excerpts Tuesday, but took the moral high ground, wishing him well after an accident that has left him in a neck collar.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Obama views Biden as one of the “leading statesmen” of his time and said the president was firmly committed to the Afghan strategy. (AFP)