Carol Felsenthal
On politics

A Look at Bob Gates’s Enraged New Memoir

The former Defense Secretary didn’t think much of his job under Obama—and a new book’s treatment of Rahm, Bill, Axe, and Valerie doesn’t mince words about it.

Gates in 2009, while he worked as Defense Secretary under Obama. Photo: Lane Christiansen

Bob Gates has captured the headlines over the last week with excerpts from his book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War—number 1 on Amazon’s rankings.

Who knew that the former defense secretary—first for W, and then for Obama during the first half of his first term; previously CIA head under H.W. Bush—was seething with such rage? He’s especially irked with the civilians in the White House, including Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and their assorted “micromanaging” staffers, at least four of whom are from Chicago.

According to the book, Obama didn’t believe in the mission, yet he sent young men and women to Afghanistan to die. Biden was wrong on every national security issue across decades. Hillary opposed the Iraq surge in 2007 for political reasons, i.e., the Iowa caucuses against Obama.

The controversy over the Gates memoir has been broiling on cable news 24/7, and the book’s internal inconsistencies and contradictions have been used to make whatever point a partisan wishes to make.

One pundit hit a homer when he opined that the defects in the 600-page memoir show the importance of a good editor. For example, an editor probably would have deleted Gates’s mention of Obama referring menacingly in a meeting of his “closest advisers,” including Gates, to “…those of you writing your memoirs…” Gates, unbelievably, writes, “I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters.”

Obama lacked passion, not to mention understanding of and trust in the military, Gates writes, yet every decision the new president made was the right one. Hillary was looking out first for her quest for the White House, yet she was a wonderful colleague, thoughtful, patriotic, smart, funny, and worked without concern for political impact. And so on. Gates’s portrayal of Joe Biden’s intellectual challenges on the national security front jumps out because of its consistency. Gates likes Biden personally, but considers him clueless on world affairs.

The book is published today, and Gates has been making the TV rounds complaining that he has been misinterpreted as being critical of Obama—“hijacked”, he says—and that the people doing so hadn’t read the book. Gates says the critics were basing their opinions on excerpts and advance reviews.

But there’s one facet of the coverage both before and after the publication that hasn’t changed at all. Gates is correctly portrayed as furious with certain White House staffers who weighed in on national security issues—and did so because President Obama invited them to attend and even talk at national security meetings, even though their expertise was in running and winning campaigns. In that category, he places Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley and David Axelrod.

Gates bitterly complains about Jarrett, Rahm and Axelrod attending national security meetings. Rahm, for one, was buddies with Denis McDonough, “the new NSC head of strategic communications,” who had been Obama’s top foreign policy adviser during the ’08 campaign. Gates charges that the three operatives “weighed in independently with Obama on foreign policy issues.” Gates quotes a “White House official” who was quoted in the Financial Times as saying, “If you were to ask me who the real national security adviser is, I would say there were three or four, of whom Rahm is one…”

Comparing Obama unfavorably to George W. Bush (Gates was W’s defense secretary during final two years of his presidency), he says, “I encountered an experienced, wiser president.” Gates describes Obama in his first term as “new, inexperienced…facing multiple crises and determined to change America’s approach to the world…and equally determined from day one to win reelection.” Domestic concerns, Gates writes, were always “a factor…in virtually every major national security problem we tackled.” Again, he names Rahm, Valerie, Axelrod, Daley (along with press secretary Robert Gibbs) as having “a presence and a role in national security decision making that I had not previously experienced.”

He says nothing more about Jarrett, but he has a lot more to say about Rahm, in a take that is sharp, funny, and surprisingly affectionate. He calls Rahm “hell-on-wheels,” describes him as “terrorizing everyone, even cabinet officers,” notes Rahm’s “inexhaustible supply of `f-bombs,’” diagnoses him as suffering from “attention deficit disorder,” and quotes retired General James Jones, Obama’s first National Security Adviser, as complaining that “Rahm would have an idea at ten in the morning and expect it to be implemented by four in the afternoon—regardless of complexity.”

Gates also admits that he came to “enjoy Rahm. He made me laugh. He was a political animal to his core and often a source of considerable insight into politics and Congress.” Gates notes that Rahm treated him with “new respect” after, in the course of a “heated argument,” Gates “dropped several ‘f-bombs’ of my own.”

Traveling abroad and meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, Gates notes that the then-French president, “reminded me of Rahm…lithe and short and full of energy—they both sort of explode into a room.”

Bill Daley was in the COS job for less than a month when Gates lunched with him at the White House. Daley, who has come in for some rough treatment in books about his White House tenure written by journalists, should be happy with his portrayal here. Gates praises Daley as “smart, tough-minded, open, honest and funny.” Daley admits to Gates that he had been “pontificating” about Egypt on a “press roundtable” when “he thought to himself, `What the fuck do I know about Egypt?’” Gates obviously agrees, referring to riots in Egypt and calls to oust then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Gates complained to Daley about Ben Rhodes, an Obama assistant and deputy national security adviser, who “believed in the power of Obama’s rhetoric … but was oblivious to the dangers of a power vacuum and the risks inherent in premature elections where the only established and well-organized party was the Muslim Brotherhood … I told Bill that all our allies in the Middle East were wondering if demonstrations … in their capitals would prompt the United States to throw them under the bus as well.”

Gates writes that David Axelrod and Rahm were, according to word Gates was getting from reporters, “’spilling their guts’ regularly—and disparagingly—to reporters about senior military leaders, Afghanistan, and the decision making process.” Gates specifies that the New York Times “was besieged by unsolicited White House sources offering their views.” He adds that “…whenever I would complain about White House leaks, there were bullshit protestations over their innocence.”

On the issue of a troop buildup in Afghanistan, Gates comes down hard on Axelrod, writing that “[James] Jones had told me David Axelrod was backgrounding the press,” portraying the President as having dominated discussions with the Pentagon. “In the end I felt this major national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and by domestic politics than any other in my entire experience. The president’s political operatives wanted to make sure that everyone knew the Pentagon wouldn’t get its way.”

That’s one of the many times, Gates writes, that he considered resigning—he wrote in an email in late 2008, “People have no idea how much I detest this job.” He wrote a note to himself at the time described above to resign and soon, but he didn’t, instead accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama and then, today, letting loose the inner workings of high-level meetings while Obama is still president and enmeshed in as many foreign crises as any president in recent history.

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