Berger, Albright, Gutierrez comment on Bob Gates in POLITICO
By JONATHAN ALLEN | 01/09/2014 05:55 PM EST | Updated: 01/09/2014 05:57 PM EST
Two-and-a-half years ago, President Barack Obama gave his first defense secretary a surprise parting gift at an outdoor retirement ceremony held on the grounds of the Pentagon: The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"The integrity of Bob Gates," is a reminder that "civility, respectful discourse and citizenship over partisanship" are "timeless virtues that we need now more than ever."
That was then.
Now, Gates has written a memoir that questions Obama's faith in the mission he assigned to American forces in Afghanistan and Vice President Joe Biden's judgment on matters of war and peace. In turn, the tome has raised questions about Gates' timing: whether such insider histories have a chilling effect on the quality and candor of debate in the president's war council and whether Gates has broken an unwritten code of loyalty to the president.
"Cabinet members who don't leave on principle ought to avoid undercutting the president while he's still in office," said Sandy Berger, who was national security adviser during President Bill Clinton's second term. "I think they have that duty of loyalty to the president. It makes me uncomfortable to see Gates do this."
Gates felt that there was no time to waste in adding to the public debate.
"The national security issues discussed in the book - Pentagon funding, use of force, the welfare of our troops, etc. - are hugely consequential and should not be kicked down the road for historians to mull over," said a person close to Gates. "They are still relevant today and he believes they need to be aired and debated now."
The contemporary-history genre has become a recurring headache for White House officials over the years, and a way for the public to understand how their leaders make decisions in time to effect change if necessary.
In 1947, the same year he left office, former Secretary of State James F. Byrnes published a book, "Speaking Frankly," that recounted insider details of the 1945 Yalta conference and the debate among President Franklin Roosevelt, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill over whether to include French leader Charles de Gaulle in conversations about how to reconstitute post-war Europe.
Stalin "said General de Gaulle was 'very unrealistic,' and reiterated that even though 'France had not done much fighting in the war, yet de Gaulle has demanded equal rights with the Soviets, the British and the Americans, who have done the fighting,'" wrote Byrnes, who was director of the office of war mobilization at the time. "President Roosevelt did not take issue with Stalin on de Gaulle. The President had great admiration for France and its people but he did not admire de Gaulle. On several occasions he referred to a conversation at Casablanca in which de Gaulle compared himself with Joan of Arc as the spiritual leader of France and with Clemenceau as the political leader."
In 1998, Robert Reich, who served as President Bill Clinton's Labor Secretary, published an insider's account of his four years in office called "Locked in the Cabinet." A year later, former White House aide George Stephanopoulos sent Washington whisperers atwitter with his book about the internal politics of the Clinton White House and how he was frozen out of the president's inner circle. George W. Bush's Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, gave author Ron Suskind his papers for a critical book called "The Price of Loyalty," and Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan burned his former boss and his decision-making in the Iraq War with "What happened" in 2008.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who wrote a memoir of the second term of the Clinton administration, said there's a value to writing about recent history but not in trashing the people you worked with.
"My own sense is it's important to write memoirs because everybody has their own view of history and it's important to get it out," said Albright, who worked with Gates on the National Security Council staff during the Carter administration.
"I'm surprised. And I have to say disappointed because I don't quite understand this," she said of the publicized excerpts of Gates' book. "When I was writing my memoir I had gotten to be friends with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He said to me 'When you write your memoirs, do not be angry," and I thought it was the best piece of advice I've gotten."
Early reporting on a handful of barbed excerpts from Gates' book, which isn't available to the general public until next week, put Obama in a bit of a box. The White House defended his decision-making in Afghanistan but stopped short of taking shots at Gates, who has served eight presidents - of both parties - and is widely well-respected in Washington. Instead, the president's aides vigorously defended Biden, which had the effect of focusing attention on the negative light in which Gates portrayed him, rather than on Obama.
Biden "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades," Gates wrote.
But Gates also served up a harsh judgment of the president who asked him to hold over after a stint as Bush's defense secretary.
Obama "lost faith" in the 30,000-troop surge he ordered in Afghanistan and was "skeptical, if not outright convinced it would fail," Gates wrote. "I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission."
Gates' intent has been misunderstood, according to the person close to him.
"How can the theme of the coverage be 'Gates Faults Obama on Afghanistan' when the book explicitly states that the Secretary supported all of Obama's decisions relating to troops and strategy? The book simply chronicles Obama's evolving skepticism that the strategy would work during 2010," the person said. "Gates supported Obama's decisions and strategy on Afghanistan; it was his unwillingness to publicly embrace the mission fully that so concerned Gates."
Once the book is out, the person said, Gates' views will be more clear: "To fully understand the quotes that are generating so much sensational news coverage, you have to read the book. You will see then that it is by no means a 'tell all' but rather a very measured and meticulously written account of his five years as secretary."
Still, veterans of the White House Situation Room worry that such insider accounts, published while the president is still in office, can stifle the kind of free-flowing debate among the commander-in-chief's top national security advisers. Over the years, the number of people in those meetings has grown - and, accordingly, so has the volume of notes that are taken not just at the main table but among backbench aides who can help their bosses reconstruct intimate conversations. Concerned that their words will appear in contemporaneous books, magazines, newspaper articles, and online reports, top officials may have a tendency to be more careful about what they say now than in decades past.
"I think a lot of the high-level decision making is based on people being able to exchange views in a setting that is not public. Partially the strength of the system when it operates right is people have diverse views, they present them, they argue them out, sometimes you take a view opposite of the one you think in order to get a lot of arguments out," Albright said. "It's a little hard to do if you think somebody is ready to write something."
There does seem to be a consensus among former Cabinet officials that it's better to wait until an administration is over to give the public a glimpse of the president in action behind closed doors.
That's the general standard "whether it's an unwritten rule or a practice," said Carlos Gutierrez, who served as Bush's Commerce Secretary. "That's the first thing that hit me when I saw the news on this ... He must have felt a real need to get this out."