Sometimes what one of your critics intends as bad news can be very good news instead.
I do not know what the Democratic presidential situation will be in 2016. Obviously if Hillary Clinton decides to run, she would be the favorite. But if Vice President Joe Biden is a candidate, he will owe former Defense Secretary Robert Gates a vote of thanks.
Gates has recently published a memoir giving his insider’s account of the Obama White House. I have not yet read Gates’ book, but I have seen a great number of quotations from it published, including a long excerpt recently printed in The Wall Street Journal. One of the most celebrated parts is his denunciation of Biden, whom Gates describes as having been “wrong” on every issue ever.
But on at least two recent counts when Biden and Gates disagreed – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – Biden was entirely correct.
Biden was the major advocate within the Obama administration for withdrawing all of our troops from Iraq at the end of last year, in contrast to those who wanted to keep a military presence in that country, making us the permanent referee in an Iraqi civil war.
Gates also objects to Biden’s caution with regard to escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Paradoxically, while he has said that no president should again send a large American ground force into an Asian country to fight a land war, he appears troubled that Biden understood that point before he did. If I were advising Biden in 2016, I would have him give full publicity to Gates’ over-the-top criticism of the vice president’s completely reasonable opposition to excessive military intervention.
This is not my only problem with Gates’ book.
My major point of criticism of WikiLeaks was its releasing diplomatic cables that had been sent by our representatives in foreign countries, revealing what should have been confidential assessments of foreign leaders. Inhibiting honest discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of the heads of other countries is a very bad idea. This is not an argument for hypocrisy.
It does not mean that we should pretend to be very fond of people when we have substantial reasons not to be, but it does mean that prudence dictates – and honestly allows – keeping some unfavorable opinions within the government, given that we have to continue to deal with those people.
Of all of the damaging revelations of that sort I have encountered, the most egregious comes from Gates. Apparently eager to rush into print while his profile is still high, Gates irresponsibly reports that President Obama is very critical of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, with whom we are now in negotiations.
Personally, I hope they fail. I do not want to see an agreement committing us to spend another $100 billion in that country for no conceivable benefit. But it is national policy – to which Gates fully subscribed while he was in office – to come to terms with Karzai.
How then, how can Gates justify making public the private negotiation opinions of Karzai that Obama expressed in what he had every reason to believe were private meetings? What is the moral difference between Gates leaking in his book the content of these very high-level discussions, and WikiLeaks releasing a state department cable? In fact, since Gates is quoting the president from confidential top-level meetings and the WikiLeaks cables only leaked the sessions from ambassadors, Gates’s transgression is clearly more serious.
There is one lesson I hope Obama will relearn from reading Gates, who complains that while Obama was supportive of the military mission in Afghanistan he was not enthusiastic enough about it to suit Gates’ view of the appropriate presidential emotional stance. When Obama announced in 2008 that he would be “post-partisan,” I was worried, not because bipartisanship is an inappropriate response in many areas, but because I knew the Republican Party had by then been so taken over by the right that he was about to engage in a very one-sided form of cooperation.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell vindicated my fears when he announced in 2010 that “the single most important thing that we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” as opposed to working with him on national problems. And Obama’s mistake in this situation was to appoint a man to the cabinet who was clearly a more partisan Republican than the president had realized.
Gates was a major figure in the Iran-Contra debacle and served three Republican presidents with a loyalty he has not shown to his most recent Democratic boss.
I was most struck by Gates telling how angry he was to be sitting in a meeting in the White House and hear members of the Obama staff express criticism of the Bush administration. “Didn’t they realize I was there?” Gates writes. The better question is: Why was he there, given his apparent strong disagreement with what the new administration believed?
It may be that the quoted excerpts that center on his personal and sometimes petty criticisms of the Obama team are a small part of the book selected only to stoke sales. But what has been quoted leaves the impression that the book is more a settling of personal grievances than a discussion of appropriate policy.
And while Obama may not take from this the lesson that I wish he would – that he should not underestimate the deep partisan feelings of people who have long served his opposition – I hope that I will benefit from this negative example as I write my own memoir and focus much more on policy questions than on the admittedly aggravating but far less important personality issues.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.
— Special to the Telegram