Bob Gates’ Obama ‘Bombshell’ Doesn’t Tell Us That Much

Excerpts from the former defense secretary’s memoir don’t shed a lot of light on how we should think of President Obama.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates receives a standing ovation from President Barack Obama and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen during Gates’ Armed Services Farewell Tribute at the Pentagon June 30, 2011, in Arlington, Va.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

MSNBC’s foreign policy maven, Andrea Mitchell, calls it a “bombshell,” and Tuesday’s headline, from Robert Gates’ own Wall Street Journal op-ed, touts the former defense secretary’s “quiet fury.”

But if excerpts from his new memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, hold true for the rest of his book, then—net-net—Gates’ account of Obama’s White House doesn’t shed that much light on the president’s wartime decision-making.

It does, though, offer a glimpse into the frustrations of a defense secretary managing two wars.

I’ll hold final judgment until the book’s release later next week. But based on the parts that have already been released, Gates’ reflections seem, mostly, like the foreseeable complaints of a senior military and intelligence man about the commanders in chief—Barack Obama and George W. Bush—whom he reported to at the end of his career.

And the problem isn’t, as CNN’s Gloria Borger says, that Gates spoke out “while the president was still in office.” It’s that many of his critiques are what we could have guessed on our own.

He calls members of Congress “hypocritical” and “egotistical”—but folks already suspected that. He says Obama mistrusts Afghan President Hamid Karzai—but is there an American politician who would say otherwise? And Gates believes that invading Iraq took Bush’s eye off the ball in Afghanistan.


Gates is (and should be) admired for helping “salvage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”—working overtime to convert previous Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s fiascos into manageable stalemates. With quotes, though, like, “I have walked right into the middle of a category-five shitstorm,” Duty reads more like an unburdening from a guy brought in—like Obama—to clean up the messes his predecessor made.

Obama kept Gates on, and Gates—a Republican appointee—admirably stayed on the job in a Democratic administration after serving in Bush’s. He provided needed continuity while two wars went from one president’s inbox to the other’s. And whatever their policy differences, Obama has largely stayed true to his 2008 promise—outlined well before Gates accepted the job—to “end the war in Iraq” and “get more troops into Afghanistan.”

Clearly, Gates left the job with a bad taste in his mouth. But he never articulates much difference between his and the president’s policy preferences.