WASHINGTON — Former US defense secretary Robert Gates says in a new memoir that he worried Israel and Saudi Arabia had too much influence in the George W. Bush White House.
He also writes in the book — “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” which is set for release next week by Knopf — that President Barack Obama grew frustrated with US policy in Afghanistan and that Vice President Joe Biden has been wrong on nearly every foreign policy and national security issue.
Gates, who served as defense secretary from 2006 to 2011, in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, calls himself a strong supporter of Israel in the book, according to a summary of its content in the Daily Beast, but also writes that he “worried about the influence of the Israelis and the Saudis in the White House… and their desire to have problems like Iran ‘taken care of’ while Bush was still president.”
At one point, describing a high-level Bush-era debate regarding support for enhanced Israeli strike capabilities, Gates writes that he set out his opposition, but that vice president Richard Cheney “spoke next, and I knew what was coming … The United States should give Israel everything it wanted.”
Obama approved the strategy of putting 30,000 additional troops into Afghanistan and placing Gen. David Petraeus in charge, even though some top advisers opposed the so-called surge he announced in December 2009.
In recalling a meeting in the situation room in March 2011, Gates writes: “As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand (Afghan President Hamid) 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.”
“I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” Gates writes.
Gates also writes that Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” though he also says Biden is “a man of integrity” — and applies the same assessment to Obama even though he is critical at times of the president’s own leadership.
(Shortly before stepping down from his post in 2011, Gates argued to Obama that Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu “is not only ungrateful, but also endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel’s growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank,” according to columnist Jeffrey Goldberg. “Gates coldly laid out the many steps the administration has taken to guarantee Israel’s security — access to top-quality weapons, assistance developing missile-defense systems, high-level intelligence sharing — and then stated bluntly that the U.S. has received nothing in return, particularly with regard to the peace process,” Goldberg wrote. A year after leaving office, Gates said that the US needed to tell Israel that it does not “have a blank check to take action that could do grave harm to American vital interests.”)
In response to reports of Gates’s disdain for Biden, the White House National Security Council issued a statement Tuesday asserting that Obama relies on Biden’s “good counsel” every day and considers him “one of the leading statesmen of his time.” Meanwhile, the White House said Obama’s weekly private luncheon with Biden would be open briefly to photographers on Wednesday, a highly unusual invitation for the press and another sign that the president was not putting any distance between himself and Biden as Gates’ scathing critique drew attention.
A Republican, Gates served 4½ years as defense secretary, the last years of the George W. Bush administration and the first years of Obama’s. According to published reports about the book Tuesday in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal:
—During his tenure as Pentagon chief, Gates often found himself tempted to quit because of the adversarial treatment he received from members of Congress. He says that in private the lawmakers could be reasonable. “But when they went into an open hearing, and the little red light went on atop a television camera, it had the effect of a full moon on a werewolf,” he says in an excerpt in the Journal.
—Gates recalls Obama and his secretary of state at the time, Hillary Rodham Clinton, discussing their opposition to Bush’s 2007 surge of troops in Iraq, according to the Post. “Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. … The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”
—Criticizing what he calls the “controlling nature” of the Obama White House, Gates says the president’s national security team “took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level,” the Times reports. He is most critical of the growth and size of the National Security Council staff, according to the Times.
—Gates at times criticizes the Bush administration as well as its successor. He holds the Bush administration responsible for what he considered misguided policy that squandered the early victories in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Times.
—In praise of Obama, Gates calls the president’s decision to order Navy SEALs to raid a house in Pakistan believed to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”
Gates was quoted by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper as warning in October 2012 that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities could “prove catastrophic.” Neither the United States nor Israel is capable of totally destroying Iran’s nuclear program, Gates said, and any strike would ultimately backfire. “Such an attack would make a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable,” he said. “They would just bury the program deeper and make it more covert.”
Speaking at a forum in Norfolk, Virginia, Gates added, “The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world.”
He made those remarks days after Netanyahu called at the United Nations General Assembly for the United States and others to warn Iran against passing a “red line” in nuclear enrichment beyond which military measures would be taken.