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' Armed Forces Farewell Tribute June 30, 2011 in Arlington, Virginia.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Jan. 14, 2014, 5:08 a.m.

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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