Gates Goes All In on Biden Criticisms: ‘Frankly, I Believe It’

In a new interview with NPR, the former Defense secretary hedges his admonitions of President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and attacks the media for getting it all wrong.

Robert Gates answers questions from the media during a press briefing September 23, 2010 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Jan. 13, 2014, 4:06 a.m.

Former De­fense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates isn’t back­ing down from his sear­ing in­dict­ment of Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, say­ing in an in­ter­view Monday that he wrote that Biden has an abysmal re­cord on for­eign policy be­cause “I be­lieve it.”

“On a num­ber of these ma­jor is­sues … I think he had been wrong,” Gates tells NPR’s Steve In­s­keep, list­ing Biden’s stances against aid to South Vi­et­nam, the first Per­sian Gulf War, and Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s de­fense buildup, among oth­er is­sues, to ex­plain his reas­on­ing.

Gates also blames Biden for “stok­ing the pres­id­ent’s sus­pi­cions of the mil­it­ary” dur­ing de­bates centered on the war in Afgh­anistan.

Gates’s long, ex­pans­ive, and frank in­ter­view also has the au­thor of the con­tro­ver­sial new book, Duty: Mem­oirs of a Sec­ret­ary at War, de­fend­ing him­self against early me­dia re­views last week that he be­lieves over­sim­pli­fied his re­la­tion­ship with and opin­ion of Pres­id­ent Obama. He at­temp­ted to dis­pel re­ports that his mem­oir por­trays Obama as go­ing along with the mil­it­ary surge in Afgh­anistan des­pite per­son­ally be­liev­ing it would not suc­ceed, ex­plain­ing that Obama was led to be­lieve the surge would fail by Biden and mem­bers of his Cab­in­et.

Ul­ti­mately, Obama made “de­cisions based on what he thought was in the best in­terest of U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity,” Gates says.

“I felt he came to have doubts about wheth­er his own strategy could suc­ceed, and I think that some of the early re­port­ing sug­ges­ted that he made the de­cision in Decem­ber or Novem­ber of 2009 be­liev­ing it wouldn’t work. I don’t be­lieve that for a second. Pres­id­ent Obama would nev­er do that, in my view. I think when he made that de­cision in Novem­ber of 2009, he be­lieved that strategy would work.”

Gates ad­ded that des­pite me­dia por­tray­als of him crit­ic­al of Obama, “the truth is, we had a very good per­son­al re­la­tion­ship.” He also con­fides that he faced more frus­tra­tions with Obama’s staff than the pres­id­ent him­self, of­fer­ing: “Let’s just say that the way it worked un­der — in the Obama White House — was not any­thing like I had seen be­fore.”

Gates is es­pe­cially crit­ic­al in his in­ter­view of Obama’s Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, which he charges with “go­ing out­side of the chain of com­mand” by be­ing “in dir­ect con­tact with com­batant com­mand­ers.”

Gates’s soon-to-be best­selling 640-page mem­oir, due out Tues­day, was thor­oughly covered last week for its la­cer­a­tions of the Obama White House, in­clud­ing then-Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton. But if Gates re­upped on his cri­ti­cism of Biden dur­ing his NPR in­ter­view, he largely re­treated from sug­ges­tions that he thought the po­ten­tial 2016 pres­id­en­tial hope­ful’s for­eign policy de­cisions were mo­tiv­ated by polit­ic­al cal­cu­lus:

“I will say this about Hil­lary: In the two and a half years that I served with her as sec­ret­ary of State, I nev­er once saw her let do­mest­ic polit­ics af­fect her po­s­i­tions on is­sues. And maybe there’s a dif­fer­ence between, you know, a sen­at­or who’s run­ning for polit­ic­al of­fice and some­body who ac­tu­ally has re­spons­ib­il­ity, but I just — I nev­er heard Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton once bring do­mest­ic polit­ics in­to the dis­cus­sion as a factor dur­ing the two and a half years we served to­geth­er and when she was sec­ret­ary of State.”

Gates is in the early stages of pro­mot­ing his book — and de­fend­ing what he wrote in it. Also on Monday, Gates charged that his book had been “hi­jacked by people along the polit­ic­al spec­trum to serve their own pur­poses, tak­ing quotes out of con­text” dur­ing an ap­pear­ance on NBC’s TODAY show. On Fri­day, he wrote a lengthy op-ed in The Wall Street Journ­al ar­guing that he be­came an “out­sider” in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and lam­bast­ing the “un­fa­mili­ar­ity of both [Obama and Biden] with the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary cul­ture.”

His new com­ments might not come to any re­lief for Biden, or the ex­tremely Biden-de­fens­ive White House, but at least one pos­sible 2016 con­tender can sleep a bit bet­ter.

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