Roberts Gates Shocked that Low-Levels Staffer Routinely Contact “Combatant Commanders:” White House Micromanagement of War Unprecedented

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates didn’t leave the review of his new book to reviewers. He hit the ground running with his own article in the Wall Street Journal at the same time expected reviewers like Bob Woodward and others, broke their stories. The book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, has seemingly stunned Bob Woodward with the frank words about Barack Obama as a Commander-in-Chief, although, according to Woodward, Gates praises Obama as “a man of personal integrity” while faulting him for his leadership. In the Wall Street Journal article today, Gates refers to the “abyss of Congress,” and the members’ “single-minded parochial self-interest.” He accuses the Obama White House of “micromanagement” and said it “wore me down.” He believes the war in Iraq was detrimental to our success in Afghanistan, and that Obama’s decisions were essentially correct.

Robert Gates

Robert Gates

The most interesting thing to me is what Gates had to say about national security staffers routinely contacting “four-star combatant commanders or field commanders.” He said this was an unthinkable practice under any administration he had worked under. He tried unsuccessfully to get the staffers to go through him. My translation: low-level upstarts with no real knowledge of war should not have the right to interrupt the time and space of men (maybe women) who were proven warriors and still on the battlefield. Further translation: the disregard and disdain for the military of this administration gave birth to the inappropriate intrusions.

For an NSS staff member to call a four-star combatant commander or field commander would have been unthinkable when I worked at the White House—and probably cause for dismissal. It became routine under Obama. I directed commanders to refer such calls to my office. The controlling nature of the Obama White House, and its determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work, offended Secretary Clinton as much as it did me. WSJ


For his part, President Obama simply wanted to end the “bad” war in Iraq and limit the U.S. role in the “good” war in Afghanistan. His fundamental problem in Afghanistan was that his political and philosophical preferences for winding down the U.S. role conflicted with his own pro-war public rhetoric (especially during the 2008 campaign), the nearly unanimous recommendations of his senior civilian and military advisers at the Departments of State and defense, and the realities on the ground. WSJ

Gates indicates that Obama correctly narrowed “objections and ambitions” in Afghanistan but said he “witnessed a good deal of wishful thinking” about successful dialogue with Pakistan and the Afghan government. When success turned to failure, the White House “especially” believed Obama’s “entire strategy” failed.

I never confronted Obama directly over what I (as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and others) saw as his determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations. His White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost. WSJ

You’ll remember General Stanley McChrystal eventually lost his job after being the force behind the request for an Afghanistan surge (and after an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine). Gates says the White House was “surprised.” Gates says he was “surprised.” The request came from outside the White House and apparently a “theater commander’s” suggestions were not welcome.

Obama on McChrystal’s resignation (believed to be forced) – hint, payback is hell:

But war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president. And as difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe that it is the right decision for our national security. …

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general.

It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan…. Source

Back to Gates referencing McChrystal:

I think Obama and his advisers were incensed that the Department of Defense—specifically the uniformed military—had taken control of the policy process from them and threatened to run away with it. WSJ

Before the Rolling Stone article, we already knew that General McChrystal’s plan was to form a kinder, gentler military and “win the battle for the hearts and minds of the people,” in Afghanistan, and many of us were more than a little conflicted about that, but we agreed with him that Biden is the equivalent of a buffoon.

The interviewer of the Rolling Stone “Runaway General” was freelancer and war correspondent Michael Hastings who died in what many believe was a suspicious auto crash on June 18, 2013.

According to Fox News, Gates said he was frequently “seething” because he felt he was not trusted by the Obama administration, and he accuses Biden of “poisoning the well” for “military leadership.

All too often during my 4½ years as secretary of defense, when I found myself sitting yet again at that witness table at yet another congressional hearing, I was tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot. The exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else. It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.

Woodward’s Washington Post article:

Thomas Donilon, initially Obama’s deputy national security adviser, and then-Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the White House coordinator for the wars, are described as regularly engaged in “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.”

Don’t be surprised if Gates supports Hillary Clinton in 2016.