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Robert Gates' memoir confirms Obama’s hands-off approach in Mideast

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The “Polar vortex” with its subzero temperatures was not the only storm that hit the White House this week. An equally chilling account of the Barack Obama administration by the former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has shocked Washington and attests to the “largely hands-off policy approach” in the Middle East, unlikely to change in the next two years.

Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, offers the highest ranking assessment so far about the Obama administration in his book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” expected to hit the shelves this Tuesday.

Excerpts and reviews of the memoir published in the Washington Post and The New York Times quotes Gates describing his former boss as someone who “does not believe in his own Afghanistan strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.”

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For Obama, “it’s all about getting out” he writes, voicing skepticism over the President’s circle of “political operatives” and the “controlling nature” of the White House. Gates’ words on Vice President Joseph Biden are more scathing, finding him “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Memoir confirms policy trend

Gates’ critique of Obama is especially surprising in its “tone” and “level of criticism” says Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, who served in consecutive U.S. administrations from Ronald Reagan through Barack Obama.

Danin tells Al-Arabiya News that Gates comes across as “deeply angry about the highly politicized policy environment” and “an overly intrusive White House.”

Perhaps, and more than anywhere else outside of Washington, the Gates critique will resonate in the Middle East where a sense of disappointment in the Obama administration lingers from Cairo to Damascus.

Joyce Karam

Gates, highly regarded for his 30 plus years in public service, lambasted the level of meddling from the Obama White House in the U.S. military. The man who was the architect of ending the Iraq war, and reengineering U.S. military power, said in his memoir he was close to quitting in 2009.

His account of the Afghanistan review and policy dynamic inside the White House confirms previous assessments by former official Vali Nasr and New York Times reporter David Sanger in their books “The Dispensable Nation” and “Confront and Conceal.”

In that sense, the image of Obama as a calculated strategist and campaigner seeking to limit U.S. footprint in war zones is not new, but coming from Gates it carries more political significance and credibility.

Perception in Middle East

Perhaps, and more than anywhere else outside of Washington, the Gates critique will resonate in the Middle East where a sense of disappointment in the Obama administration lingers from Cairo to Damascus.

Former U.S. national security officials and Arab diplomats in Washington see in Gates’ narrative a “confirmation of Obama’s approach to the region.”

Arab diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, tell Al-Arabiya News that “getting out” is a defining theme for the administration across the region and not only in Afghanistan.

The New York Times spoke this week about “the emergence of a post-American Middle East in which no broker has the power, or the will, to contain the region’s sectarian hatreds.” A reality that will only be enforced by Gates’ account of the White House.

No change in policy

This reality of keeping an arm's length from Middle East turmoil is not, however, at odds with the U.S. public. Danin points out that the “the American public is generally supportive of the President’s largely hands-off approach towards the Middle East.” Today, the legacy of ending wars stands as a big accomplishment for the 44th President, regardless of the turmoil across the region.

Beyond the heated debate, Danin does not see Gates’ book as having “significant ramifications in the Middle East” and suspects it “will be a more of a beltway (Washington centered) story.”

“Secretary Gates’ criticisms will not lead the American public to call for new policies or greater involvement in the Middle East,” he stated, given that the majority of Americans reject a U.S. involvement in Syria and support the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Danin adds that while the book “could make U.S. government officials more defensive about the policy choices they have made,” it remains “part of larger battles both to define the historical legacy of the Obama Administration and to elect his successor.” In other words, Gates’ memoir will unlikely have direct ramifications on the Obama administration at the time being, nor will it change its policy trajectory in the Middle East.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.