Robert Gates has roiled the Beltway with perhaps the least surprising bombshell ever to appear in a tell-all Washington memoir.
Did anyone believe that President Barack Obama was passionately committed to the Afghanistan War that he escalated at the same time he announced a withdrawal date?
If what Gates tells us isn’t particularly new, it still packs a punch coming from such a highly placed, credible source. For Obama, Afghanistan is the insincere war. More than 1,500 troops have died there during his time in office — almost three times as many as under George W. Bush — yet by early 2011, the president had lost whatever faith he had in the war, according to Gates.
In the telling of his former secretary of defense, Obama violated what should be the psychological Powell Doctrine: If you don’t believe in it, don’t fight it.
John Kerry famously asked during the Vietnam War: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? Now the secretary of state should pose a version of his long-ago rhetorical question to his boss. Obama evidently has been asking men to die for what he considers a mistake for years now.
As reported in the press, Gates describes a dawning realization at a March 2011 meeting in the situation room. “As I sat there,” he writes, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghan leader 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.”
This is the war that the president and other Democrats had long hailed as “the good war.” Candidate Obama made the first item in his proposed “comprehensive strategy” in the war on terror, “getting out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The president may have meant every word he said at the time, but his position also happens to have been politically convenient. It allowed him to promise a quick exit from one (very unpopular) war while still sounding tough on the other. He wasn’t a stereotypical dove, but a nuanced, cleareyed hawk.
Once in office, the rhetoric came due. By all accounts, the president felt trapped by his own advocacy. He and his team resented the military for asking for more troops than he really wanted to send. He escalated by about 50,000 all told, anyway, although with an uncertain trumpet and a highly ambivalent spirit.
Gates writes of how Obama’s political advisers steadily worked on him, driving distrust of the military and skepticism of the war. They were pushing on an open door. According to Gates, the president was “deeply suspicious” of senior military officers and “considered time spent with generals and admirals an obligation.”
Gates still says the president got the big decisions right, so what difference does his sincerity or lack of it make? There are costs to halfheartedness. After announcing the surge, Obama began to effectively vote “present” on his own war. He has refused to make a concerted public case for it.
And if a president doesn’t believe in a war, he is obviously less likely to see it through. The cost of liquidating our position in Iraq — after failed, halfhearted negotiations for a new status of forces agreement — has been a resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq. If we pull out from Afghanistan right away, the Taliban will surely enjoy a similar windfall.
Obama has a remarkable ability to create critical distance between himself and almost anything. Here is a conflict that began with an invasion that he supported, that he consistently called for escalating and that he ordered tens of thousands of additional troops to go fight, yet he resisted taking ownership of it.
“I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops,” Gates writes, “only his support for their mission.” Stranger words may never have been written about an American president.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.