Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gates' tell-all book could be called 'Beware the quiet ones'

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Always keep an eye on the quiet ones. Robert Gates, a Washington veteran who served as former U.S. president George W. Bush's final defence secretary and stayed on as President Barack Obama's first, has written an incendiary memoir that belies his reputation as an inscrutable, unflappable team player -- the man Team Obama nicknamed Yoda, after the Jedi master from Star Wars (1977).

As a rare bipartisan figure in a polarized capital, a man who served eight presidents in his day, Gates has startled Washington by revealing the passions beneath his poker face. He betrays real loathing for Congress -- most of its members, he writes, are parochial, incompetent, rude, thin-skinned, self-serving and hypocritical. He talks of congressional hearings turned into kangaroo courts by members "in a permanent state of outrage." At the same time, Gates, CIA chief during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, confesses to the almost-debilitating grief he came to feel over military casualties.

His book, entitled Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf, 2014), shows contempt for many in Obama's inner circle. Special disdain is reserved for Vice-President Joe Biden, who according to Gates was "wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades." Close Obama aides are dismissed as callow, aggressive, suspicious and leaky. He calls Team Obama more prone to micromanagement of national security than any White House he had seen "since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost."

Stung by what he feels were broken promises on defence spending and gays in the military, Gates writes: "Agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient."

Historians may, however, find most interest in Gates' more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger portrait of Obama, a man 18 years his junior. Republican foreign-policy hawks, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-N.C.), cite Gates' book as evidence Obama has caused havoc from Iraq to Syria by ignoring the military and refusing to lead.

The book's charge is subtler than that, however. Gates depicts a president willing to overrule political advisers and make hard decisions, as with his 2009 military surge in Afghanistan. In Gates' telling, though, Obama is oddly reluctant to own those decisions.

The Afghan surge is presented as the logical end point of a process that saw Obama win the White House as an opponent of the "bad" war in Iraq while hailing Afghanistan as a "good" war. Having declared Afghanistan a war of necessity and analyzed his options for months, Obama had to come up with a plan for winning. The defence secretary came to doubt whether Obama's heart was in it. He describes a 2011 meeting overshadowed by disputes with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and by unhelpful briefings by Gen. David Petraeus, then the military commander in Afghanistan.

"The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his," Gates recalls thinking. "For him it's all about getting out."

Gates sees some similarities between Bush and Obama, calling both self-contained, aloof and damagingly arrogant with members of Congress or foreign leaders who might be allies.

As a self-proclaimed realist, skeptical of the use of military force, Gates is arguably closer in strategic world view to Obama, but he cannot hide his disillusion with a boss who comes across as a detached observer of his own foreign policy.

"I thought Obama did the right things on national security," Gates writes, "but everything came across as politically calculated."

The president earned the respect of Gates, a rare Republican in Team Obama, but never, it seems, his love.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2014 A7

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