Robert Gates hits out at Obama foreign policy

Richard McGregor

Barack Obama's White House controlled foreign and defense policy more tightly than any other president since Richard Nixon and was filled with inexperienced congressional "staffers, academics and political operatives", according to his former defense secretary.

In his memoir due for release next week, Robert Gates, who served both George W. Bush and Mr Obama as the Pentagon chief, delivers an icy assessment of his most recent boss and his foreign policy, especially the initial surge and draw-down of troops from Afghanistan.

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He describes a scene in 2011 when Mr Obama admonishes his advisers at a meeting of the National Security Council after military leaders had publicly questioned whether there should be a fixed date for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand (Hamid) Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his," Mr Gates writes. "For him, it's all about getting out."

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images News | Getty Images

"I was deeply uneasy with the Obama White House's lack of appreciation, from the top down, of the uncertainties and unpredictability of war," he writes elsewhere.

While describing Joe Biden as a "man of integrity", he is scathing about the vice-president's judgment.

"I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades," he writes in the memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.

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His criticism of Mr Biden stands in contrast to his praise of Hillary Clinton whom he found "smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world".

The angry and even bitter tone in the parts of the book so far leaked is in contrast to Mr Gates' sober and tightly held wise man image over decades in Washington, a career which included heading the CIA.

His anger appears to be due in part to the increasing incivility in Washington and in particular the difficulties of dealing with Congress and getting anything done there.

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Up close, he writes, it is "truly ugly".

"I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities, (such as timely appropriations), micro-managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country," the book says.

Mr Gates' tone is also a reflection of what he describes as the pain he witnessed first hand at the loss of American lives and the damage to military families from successive wars.

While not criticising Mr Bush directly, he said presidents in recent decades had been "too often too quick to reach for a gun" when confronted by tough foreign policy problems.

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"Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents," the book says.

"For too many people, including defense 'experts', members of Congress, executive branch officials and ordinary citizens, war has become a kind of video game or action movie: bloodless, painless and odorless," the book says.

"But my years at the Pentagon left me even more skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest that war is anything other than tragic, inefficient and uncertain."

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In a statement on Tuesday evening, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Mr Obama "deeply appreciates Bob Gates' service as Secretary of Defence" and wished him well on his book tour.

On Afghanistan, she said Mr Obama had been "committed to achieving the mission of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda, while also ensuring that we have a clear plan for winding down the war, which will end this year".

"The President disagrees with Secretary Gates' assessment – from his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America's leadership in the world," Ms Hayden said. "President Obama relies on his good counsel every day."