Robert Gates’ wars

The United States has lost interest in tackling the complex crises and issues of the Middle East

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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He spared no one. Not President Obama, or Vice President Biden, not the president’s senior aides or members of the National Security Council and not the Congress. Robert Gates, the Republican former defense secretary who served eight American presidents, and managed through it all to build a solid reputation as a serious, thoughtful and moderate public servant, stunned Washington this week with his soon to be published memoirs titled “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” in which he issued what amounts to a scathing indictment against the sitting president he served, questioning his leadership as the commander-in-chief and even his sincerity and commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. Gates writes that by early 2010 he was convinced that the president “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” While fighting two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against al-Qaeda, Gates found himself fighting an entrenched Pentagon bureaucracy, while resisting “the magnetic pull exercised by the White House, especially in the Obama administration” and dueling against an “ugly” Congress. Gates admits that he was frequently “seething” with anger and “running out of patience on multiple fronts.”

Gates’ damning criticism of President Obama’s leadership in dealing with Afghanistan i.e. the shifting narratives, the lack of a strong will to execute a declared policy, and most disturbing his indecisiveness, raises serious questions about how he will steer foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, in the three long years remaining in the president’s second term. If President Obama is insufficiently sincere and not fully committed to win the “good” war in Afghanistan that he has supported since he ran for the presidency the first time in 2008, can he be trusted to carry out his promises that he will use military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal?

Gates’ unsparing criticism of President Obama and his administration, particularly the president’s leadership style, and the White House’s insistence on monopolizing decision-making including trying to micromanage the wars at the expense of input from both the Defense and the State Department, and more importantly the Administration’s obsession of seeing everything through the prism of domestic politics, echoed similar criticism leveled by former officials, including Vali Nasr the former advisor to the late Richard Holbrook when he was a special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, whose disillusionment and frustration with the modus operandi of the White House led them to resign. What made Gates’ critical arrows so sharp and painful is the fact that the archer was so skillful throughout his career, but particularly through his almost five-year stint as a secretary of defense for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in not revealing his anger or his frustration in public. “I have a pretty good poker face,” he said.

The United States has lost interest in tackling the complex crises and issues of the Middle East

Hisham Melhem

Although Gates praises Obama as “a man of personal integrity” he, nonetheless, does not hide his disappointment in the president’s flawed leadership and the dominance of politics in his decision making on issues of national security. After all, as Gates notes in his book, Obama was “determined from day one to win re-election.” However, Gates reserves his most poisonous arrows for Vice President Biden and for senior aides at the White House and the National Security Council. Of Biden, he says that he is loud, talkative and driven by political calculus over substance. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Gates levels serious charges against Biden, accusing him of “poisoning the well” against the military leadership, and damaging Obama’s relationship with the senior military brass. “I thought Biden was subjecting Obama to Chinese water torture, every day saying, ‘the military can’t be trusted’.”

A control freak White House

Gates’ contempt for Obama’s advisors is explicit and jarring. The National Security staff was “filled primarily by former Hill (Congress) staffers, academics and political operatives” with very little national security expertise or lacking the skills to manage large bureaucracies. Gates says that the president was determined to let his close advisors “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.” Gates talks about a highly politicized White House meddling in all affairs and at times trying to micromanage the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some senior officials engaged in “aggressive, suspicious and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.” Gates says that he and then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were offended, because the White House wanted to “take credit for every good thing that happened [in the war] while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work.” Gates describes a moment during a meeting of the National Security Council presided over by the president in March 2010 that speaks volumes about Obama’s tense relations with the military. The meeting took place after General David Petraeus, the commander in charge of both the Iraq and Afghan wars, said publicly that he was uncomfortable with setting a fixed date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Obama opened the meeting with a “blast” and an implicit threat to the senior officers for “popping off in the press,” then added ominously “if I believe I am being gamed…” and left the sentence hanging there with the clear implication the consequences would be dire.” Needless to say that Gates was “upset” because the President’s words were “inappropriate, not to mention highly disrespectful of Petraeus.” It was in this meeting that Gates said he believed President Obama does not trust his commander and does not believe in his own strategy, that he does not own the war and that all he wants was to get out of it.

A passionless president

This flawed profile of a commander-in-chief who does not trust his military, does not even believe in a strategy (surging the troops in Afghanistan by 40,000 soldiers) that he himself articulated, shows a callous president willing to send thousands of soldiers into harm’s way, knowing in advance that he is engaged in a futile enterprise. Gates is most damning to the president’s character when he says of his strategy to surge the troops that Obama himself was “skeptical, if not outright convinced it would fail.” How could Obama fight a war he does not believe in it sincerely? Or he is not genuinely committed to win it, even though he described it as a war of necessity or the “good’ war, as opposed to the ‘stupid’ or ‘bad’ war of choice in Iraq. Gates never found the passion and the commitment to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan that he was looking for in President Obama.
Gates’ portrait of a detached president with no strong passions or strong commitments to carry through the causes he claims to believe in, and a White House suspicious of the military and driven by domestic calculus and dynamics, revives the old doubts about whether President Obama truly believes in America’s central role in global affairs. Hence the lack of an overarching conceptual strategy to deal with a rapidly changing international environment, with the rise of regional powers that are trying to compete strategically and economically with the United States and limit its sway in what they see as their spheres of influence.

Back to the future in Fallujah

President Obama’s hurried withdrawal from Iraq after half-hearted, some would even say pro-forma, negotiations that failed to secure an agreement for a small residual force, and his refusal to remain personally engaged in trying to influence and/or pressure Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to pursue more inclusive politics (Iraq was subcontracted to Vice President Biden) betrayed a shocking lack of appreciation of Iraq’s brittle national cohesion and Iran’s tremendous capacity to meddle and shape Iraq’s political course. This may have contributed to the resurgence of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Against the background of deepening Sunni-Shiite cleavages, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the new incarnation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, brazenly occupied Fallujah and Ramadi; two cities American soldiers fought ferociously to control in their bloodiest engagements since the Vietnam war. They battled for the cities barely a decade ago and in the process paid a heavy price in blood. Lacking a new security agreement for the post-NATO presence in Afghanistan, one could see a similar scenario to what is happening in Iraq now playing itself out when America ends it longest war by mid-2014.

Uprisings and their discontent

In his first year in office, President Obama said all the right things, eloquently, and with the right tone and cadence, to the Muslim World in his Cairo speech. In hindsight, that speech was a stellar example of how words uttered by some people take on the weight of actions. Again, the president did not follow up on his promises of a “new beginning” with that admittedly vast, complex, conflicted and maddening world. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stiffed him on the issue of settlement freeze, and when his initial offer of engaging Iran and Syria were not reciprocated, he began to lose interest in the Middle East. The season of Arab uprisings presented President Obama with serious long term challenges requiring steady, bold and imaginative leadership. Instead, his leadership was wobbly, ad hoc and contradictory, and in the case of Egypt, he managed to alienate important constituencies. President Obama “led from behind” in Libya, justifying America’s important role in the air campaign against the Qaddafi regime by invoking the right to protect the people of Benghazi from an impending massacre. Yet he refused, in the case of the Syrian uprising, to intervene militarily from the air or to impose a No Fly Zone when the Assad regime began to commit massacres against civilians and engage in sectarian cleansing early on and before the emergence of the radical Islamist opposition. President Obama asked President Assad to step down, but he did nothing to carry his demand through. He drew his –by now- infamous “red line” to Assad, warning that there will be consequences and that he will change his calculus about intervening in the conflict. It seemed that Assad took the measure of the American president early on and realized that no one told Obama about that old Arab saying: don’t unsheathe your sword unless you are ready to use it.

The failure of Obama’s leadership was embarrassingly on full display last summer when he pledged to use military force to punish the Syrian regime, after U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons against civilians, and then at the last moment he changed his mind. Looking at that humiliating episode through the prism of Gates’ book, one could see that the former secretary of defense was very prescient when he wrote his book. President Obama took his major decision about dropping the military option against Syria after consultations with his inner circle of advisors at the White House, and without seeking the views of his secretaries of defense and state. President Obama’s reluctant involvement in the Middle East and his lack of sustained leadership involvement in global affairs in general, shows clearly that his impulse is inward-looking and that he does not mind “downsizing” America’s role in the world. Gates’ book vindicates what many of us have been saying for some time now that the president of the United States has lost interest in tackling the complex crises and issues of the Middle East and that he has turned his back on that important region.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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