Washington loves few things more than a tell-all memoir, and even if a memoir doesn't actually tell very much, the media will do their best to characterize it as scandalous and shocking. So it is with the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which will soon be appearing in airport bookstores everywhere. From the excerpts that have been released, it actually sounds like Gates has plenty of praise for President Obama, and some criticisms that are not particularly biting. Sure, there's plenty of bureaucratic sniping and the settling of a few scores, but his criticisms (the Obama White House is too controlling, politics sometimes intrudes on national security) sound pretty familiar.
Gates' thoughts on Afghanistan, however, do offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we've come in that long war. The quote from his book that has been repeated the most concerns a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama expressed his frustration with how things were going in Afghanistan. "As I sat there," Gates writes, "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." Well let's see. Should Obama have trusted David Petraeus? I can't really say. Hamid Karzai is corrupt, incompetent, and possibly mentally unstable. As to whether he believed in his own strategy (the "surge" of extra troops), by then there were plenty of reasons to doubt that it would work. The war wasn't his—it had been going on for over seven years before he even took office. And "it's all about getting out"? Well wasn't that the whole point? The reason the administration undertook the "surge" in the first place was to create the conditions where we could get out.
Another thing Gates writes is, "I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission," and that that is a problem for the troops in the field. I'm sure it can be, to a degree, and morale can be undermined if you think the president doesn't believe you're going to succeed. I would also imagine that if you were a soldier in Iraq in 2005 or so and you saw George Bush on TV all the time talking about how great everything was going, you'd think your Commander in Chief was an idiot, and that might not be so good for morale either. But the real point is that in neither case was the president's confidence going to make much of a difference. The problem was never the president's disposition, or the particular decisions made in one year or one month. It was launching the war in the first place.