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The Long, Ugly History Between Robert Gates and Joe Biden The Long, Ugly History Between Robert Gates and Joe Biden The Long, Ugly History Between Robert Gates and Joe Biden The Long, Ugly History Be...

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Defense

The Long, Ugly History Between Robert Gates and Joe Biden

Is the former Defense secretary exacting revenge years later for the quick dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal?

Joe Biden pats Robert Gates on the back as they enter the Pentagon before Gates's Armed Forces Farewell Tribute on June 30, 2011, in Arlington, Virginia.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

photo of Dustin Volz
January 14, 2014

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has grabbed headlines for his blistering indictment of Joe Biden's foreign policy record, but this isn't the first time the vice president has been pilloried by a senior military official.

In 2009, Gates handpicked then-Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to serve as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, believing he would offer "fresh thinking, fresh eyes [to the war effort]" despite his connection to the friendly-fire death of NFL star Pat Tillman and prisoner abuses at an Iraq camp. McChrystal was soon approved by the Senate and promoted to the rank of general, serving confidently under Gates.

But in summer 2010, journalist Michael Hastings penned a lengthy profile of McChrystal, then the top commander in Afghanistan, for Rolling Stone magazine. Hastings's richly reported oeuvre, which revealed a culture of disdain among McChrystal and his senior staff for the civilian leaders making all the war decisions from a chair in the Situation Room, immediately caught fire. McChrystal's alarmingly blunt comments, like the assessments found in Gates's book, were most critical of Biden:

 

Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as "shortsighted," saying it would lead to a state of "Chaos-istan." The remarks earned him a smackdown from the president himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: Shut the f--- up, and keep a lower profile.

Now, flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris, McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. "I never know what's going to pop out until I'm up there, that's the problem," he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner.

"Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal says with a laugh. "Who's that?"

"Biden?" suggests a top adviser. "Did you say: Bite me?"

McChrystal's short, on-the-record pot shot at Biden incensed the White House. The general and the vice president had long been locking horns over Afghan war strategy--Biden favored a narrower approach designed to target al-Qaida's leaders, McChrystal a broader counterinsurgency.

McChrystal was summarily recalled back to Washington to answer for his ill-conceived remarks on civilian leadership. He apologized to Biden but was forced to resign almost immediately, and announced his retirement weeks later.

Gates was not happy to see one of his most trusted commanders so quickly dismissed. Commenting on the episode a couple weeks later during a video interview with the Associated Press, Gates defended his general:

Gen. McChrystal never, ever said one thing or in any way, shape or form conveyed to me any disrespect for civilian authority over the military. Never.… This business of questioning of civilian authority, as far as I'm concerned, has been taken out of context by virtue of the Rolling Stone article…. I think this was a rare circumstance and an unfortunate one, but I think we can move on.

Linking Gates's current salvos against Biden to the McChrystal flap is, at this point, only conjecture (and nothing motivates an author of a new book more than controversy that will ultimately drive sales). But the two share a contentious history, and Gates's new derision of Biden's foreign policy expertise is only the latest chapter.

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