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Former Defense Secretary Gates critiques Obama, Congress in new war memoir

January 8, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
As former defense secretary for both the Bush and Obama administrations, Robert Gates oversaw wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, testified before Congress and grieved the deaths of his troops. Judy Woodruff talks to Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post for a preview of Gates' new book, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As secretary of defense for both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, Robert Gates oversaw critical moments in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He would emotionally address the troops in the field, but back home showed a stoic public face.

Gates opens up about his frustration with the presidents he served and the Congress he had to testify before in a new book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”

He writes of one meeting in 2011 with Mr. Obama and General David Petraeus, who then commanded military forces in Afghanistan:

Quote: “As I sat there, I thought the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out” — end quote.

When it came to Congress, he writes — quote — “I would listen with growing outrage, as hypocritical and obtuse American senators made all of these demands of Iraqi legislators and yet themselves could not even pass budgets” — end quote.

We expect to interview the former defense secretary next Tuesday.

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But, for now, we turn to Washington Post staff writer Greg Jaffe, who covered Robert Gates and has read an advance copy of the book.

Greg Jaffe, it’s good to have you with us. Thank you.

GREG JAFFE, The Washington Post: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you did get the book early. And you covered him for his entire five years under both presidents. What mainly stands out in this book?

GREG JAFFE: Well, the thing that stood out to me most was just the emotional toll that the wars took on him and that the casualties took on him.

You really get an unvarnished sense of that. And we could see it in glimpses covering him. I wrote in the review of the book that I did about one of those kind of glimpses. But to really see it and hear it in his own voice kind of page after page is striking. And it is a burden that you could tell he still carries with him today and seems to be sorting through in this book.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, you — I think you said in your review the book reads in a way like an extended therapy session for him.

GREG JAFFE: Yes, I kind of felt that way, yes, in the sense that it can be a little bit self-contradictory. It kind of doubles back on itself.

On the one hand, you think, hey, if he had given himself a little bit more time and a little bit more distance, it would have been a more rational book, maybe a better argued book. But there is a power and an emotion to writing it when he did. You know, it’s really — it does read like a therapy session at times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you write not only the contradiction in himself, the contradictory views of other people. On the one hand, he praises President Obama for being decisive, for being…

GREG JAFFE: Courageous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … courageous, bold to make the decision on Osama bin Laden, but then on the other hand, as we just heard, really being hard on him for his handling of Afghanistan.

GREG JAFFE: Yes.

And that’s — I thought that that was an example of an argument that he doesn’t quite deliver as well as he should on. You know, he criticizes the president for not believing in the strategy, but also concedes that it was a courageous move to back the surge and that it was a politically unpopular move.

So it’s not completely rational to me. If the president doesn’t believe in it, why did he do it? And part of what I kind of wondered was, I mean, it seemed at times that Gates felt like the president — his frustration with the president is that the president doesn’t feel the same passion, the same sort of sense of obligation, the all sort of consuming guilt at times, and that therefore he must be missing something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Gates, of course, had spent a lot of time or time when he could with the troops themselves, when he would go over there.

GREG JAFFE: Certainly, yes, and certainly spent almost every night of his tenure as secretary of defense writing condolence letters, which he — a task he took with great seriousness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also write at one point in your view, you said you can’t imagine between President Obama and President George W. Bush two more different men. What does he say about President Bush?

GREG JAFFE: You know, he’s very complimentary of President Bush, at least as my recollection of it.

He does concede that when he joins the Bush administration, President Bush has been president for six years, and that that is, you know, a different mind-set. But he is very — he’s very quick to praise President Bush’s decisiveness and his passion, particularly with regard to the Iraqi surge.

He describes him as sort of having no second thoughts on that surge, nor any second thoughts on the Iraq war overall. And that’s something that I think Gates finds commendable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congress, he is very tough on. Is that just from having to go testify as often as he did?

GREG JAFFE: I think so, and just sort of the divisive political nature of Congress today. You know, I think he longs for a day of greater bipartisanship.

But I think part of it is just his own personal frustration that he is so engaged in these wars. And I think he is just frustrated with Congress that they don’t feel the same. Again, they don’t feel the same passion, the same commitment that he does.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And his really tough comment about Vice President Biden, that he has been wrong on every foreign policy.

GREG JAFFE: For four decades.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For four decades.

(LAUGHTER)

GREG JAFFE: Yes, it’s interesting on that, though.

This is where I — the therapy session stuff comes in, that he’s very critical of Biden on that. He’s very critical of Biden for suggesting that he sowed discord between the president and the uniformed military by sort of subjecting the president to Chinese water torture, as he calls it, that you can’t trust your generals.

But then, at the end of the book, he also kind of comes around and says, well, on Iraq, there really wasn’t that much of a difference between my position and Biden’s position, you know, maybe 10,000 troops, and that I should have done more to build bridges, rather than be as defensive as I was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Greg Jaffe, how does he judge himself?

GREG JAFFE: You know, that’s a good question.

I think he sort of — that’s why I thought he is kind of wrestling through it. I mean, he is critical of himself in the book. And it’s written in his voice. He didn’t use a ghostwriter. And it’s clear. And I mean that in a good way, in a sense that it sounds like him and it feels like him.

And I think he is still wrestling through with that. I think he’s very proud of the Iraq surge, but I think he does feel a certain amount of guilt at the suffering that the war has caused.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Greg Jaffe with The Washington Post.

And, as we mentioned, we will be talking with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates next Tuesday.

Thank you.

GREG JAFFE: Yes, thank you.