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Douglas Cohn: In book, Gates hits Biden the hardest on foreign policy

By Douglas Cohn

Syndicated columnist

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WASHINGTON — Having loyally served presidents in both political parties, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was the epitome of competence and professionalism, a true patriot. Self-effacing and coolly efficient, he won accolades from Democrats and Republicans alike. Everyone admired this apparently fair-minded analyst who had honed his skills at the CIA, and served as its director during George H.W. Bush’s administration.

When President-elect Barack Obama asked Gates to stay on as Defense Secretary to help wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates readily agreed, and for all any of us knew, he served ably and willingly. Then comes this bombshell, a memoir titled “Duty,” that peels away the veneer of loyal Cabinet member that Gates had adhered to for so long to reveal a petty and vindictive partisan “seething” inside much of the time by his own admission.

Exactly what he seethed about doesn’t amount to much since at the end of his 594-page account, he says Obama was “right in each of the decisions” he made in prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What Gates faults the president for is insufficient passion for the course he set along with insufficient deference to the military commanders, questioning them in a manner that suggested a lack of trust.

Reading this, the president comes across a lot better than the self-regarding Gates. Obama was doing what a civilian commander in chief is supposed to do, grill the military and not take anything at face value. The two approaches are epitomized in the Kennedy administration with the Bay of Pigs, where the new president didn’t ask questions, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, where JFK stared down the military and kept us out of nuclear war.

The first part of Gates’ book deals with the time he spent as Bush’s Defense Secretary, and he finds surprisingly little to argue about, spending most of the book as Obama’s judge and jury. He chafes at the “controlling nature” of the White House staff, likening it to the Nixon White House, and complains that domestic political issues intruded all the time. He said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that her opposition to the surge in Iraq was political, that she did it to position herself in the Iowa caucuses to counter Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war, which she had supported.

Gates hits Vice President Biden the hardest, saying he hasn’t gotten anything right in foreign policy and national security in 40 years. That’s a huge generality, and it reflects the deepening gulf between Republicans and Democrats on every issue, coupled with Gates’ evident resentment that Biden was the administration’s attack dog internally, taking on the Pentagon and refusing to be cowed.

What Gates hopes to achieve with this memoir other than maybe padding his bank account is hard to decipher. Obama won’t be up for election again; Biden may or may not run for president in 2016. Hillary Clinton has the most to lose – or to gain — from Gates’ portrayal of her. Should she run for president, her opponents will point to her allegedly playing politics with the Iraq war. Overall, however, Gates’ comments about Clinton are so flattering, it’s almost an endorsement. He calls her “smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.”

By his own admission, Gates didn’t challenge Obama when he was on the inside; instead he quietly seethed. If he felt as strongly as this book indicates, it was his duty to speak up internally at first and then if it was so unbearable he should have resigned in protest and gone public at the time. Think Elliot Richardson, Nixon’s attorney general who resigned rather than obey the president’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor. That’s what statesmen and patriots do, Mr. Gates.

U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.