OUR VIEW: Robert Gates and a tale of two presidents

Obama flaws cited in Gates' memoir also helped to end war

Published:

Robert Gates, the Bush-era Pentagon chief who remained in the Obama Cabinet to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has succumbed to a familiar Beltway malady that strikes many departing bureaucrats: He's written a tell-all memoir.

And, as is often the case, the author has forsaken loyalty to a former employer in the interest of "candor." Translation: Trash talk that sells books.

Gates' memoir, entitled "Duty," includes candid assessments of both George W. Bush, who appointed him to head the Department of Defense in 2006 after sacking Donald Rumsfeld, and Barack Obama, who kept him on in a display of bipartisanship for the sake of wartime continuity. While Bush comes in for criticism, it appears to be payback time for Obama.

Gates faults his most recent employer for lacking "passion," especially when it came to seeking public support for a troop buildup in Afghanistan. "When soldiers put their lives on the line," writes Gates, "they need to know that the commander in chief who sent them in harm's way believes in their mission. President Obama never did that."

Obama, he writes, was skeptical about the Afghanistan strategy and appeared to be suspicious and distrustful of senior military. Bush, on the other hand, "had no second thoughts about Iraq, including our decision to invade." (To be fair, Gates does criticize Bush for being "embarrassingly ambitious" and "historically naive.")

While Gates praises Obama for being "quite decisive ... very thoughtful and analytical" and lauds his decision to approve the raid that killed Osama bin Laden as "courageous," his reservations about the commander-in-chief that he served for four years, with apparent loyalty, are evident. And, of course, his observations are calculated to sell his book; without them, it's a 640-page doorstop.

The former Pentagon chief is entitled to his opinions, but the fact remains that Obama, despite his skepticism of the military and his preference for nuanced decision-making, brought the Iraq war to a close. And, with luck, he will do the same thing this year in Afghanistan, more than a dozen years after his predecessor began U.S. involvement there. Unlike Bush, Obama's priority wasn't winning either war or planting the seeds of democracy in a region with no experience of it; his task was to pursue a reasonable exit strategy.

After thousands of American casualties in two wars fought for dubious reasons, not to mention the staggering cost of paying for them, there is something to be said for skepticism in the Oval Office when it comes to military matters. Weighing the options and maintaining room for deliberation isn't indecisiveness, it's prudence. Sometimes second thoughts save lives.

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