Tom Donilon: Bob Gates and I Got on Great

Obama’s former national security advisor, along with Gates himself, says all the grievances in the book were aired at the time.

 National Security Advisor Tom Donilon speaks during a news conference on June 8, 2013 in Rancho Mirage, California.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Jan. 17, 2014, 8:12 a.m.

Tom Doni­lon, the na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­visor who is oc­ca­sion­ally cri­ti­cized by Robert Gates in his tell-all book, says that the former De­fense sec­ret­ary ac­tu­ally aired all his griev­ances fully in meet­ings at the White House and else­where, and the two of them worked well to­geth­er in the end.

“I have to say I don’t see any­thing that Sec. Gates says in the book that he didn’t raise as an is­sue at the time,” Doni­lon told Na­tion­al Journ­al in a phone in­ter­view. “The is­sues we ad­dressed were dif­fi­cult and ob­vi­ously in­tens­ive dis­cus­sions, and Sec. Gates says he be­lieves the de­cisions were bet­ter as a res­ult of the pro­cess.”

In his book, Duty: Mem­oirs of a Sec­ret­ary at War, Gates writes of fre­quent fric­tions between his Pentagon and the White House, and of this worry and frus­tra­tion as Obama ex­pressed doubts about his on­go­ing Afgh­anistan “surge.” Early re­ports about the book, es­pe­cially in The Wash­ing­ton Post, sug­ges­ted that Obama was an un­steady lead­er who was mis­lead­ing the Amer­ic­an pub­lic by com­mit­ting troops to a strategy he nev­er be­lieved in, and that Gates was seeth­ing with pre­vi­ously un­ex­pressed frus­tra­tion when he wrote it. “From the ex­cerpts of the mem­oir that have been re­leased, Gates emerges as a petu­lant, in­hib­ited man who ill-served his pres­id­ent and the na­tion­al in­terest by keep­ing his an­ger and con­cerns bottled up in­stead of rais­ing them in per­son, at the time when it might have done his coun­try some good,” Sarah Chayes, who worked on high-level Afghan policy as a spe­cial as­sist­ant to the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs, wrote in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. 

Since pub­lic­a­tion, however, Gates has sought to cor­rect the re­cord, say­ing any doubts that Obama ex­pressed about Afgh­anistan came after the surge was ordered, not be­fore.

And at a break­fast meet­ing with re­port­ers on Fri­day, Gates ef­fect­ively agreed with Doni­lon’s as­sess­ment that he had raised all of his con­cerns at the time the ad­min­is­tra­tion was mak­ing crit­ic­al de­cisions on Afgh­anistan and oth­er is­sues. Gates said “there wasn’t a single is­sue” he didn’t raise in of­fice that he ad­dressed later in his book, wheth­er about Afgh­anistan, Ir­aq, European mis­sile de­fense or the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­gram of “out­reach” to Ir­an. Gates ad­ded: “I agreed with him [Obama] on all those things. My con­tinu­ing con­cerns were more pro­cess con­cerns. I did raise those all the time with Tom Doni­lon,[former Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­visor] Jim Jones and oth­ers. “¦ Un­til we got to Egypt and [the in­ter­ven­tion in] Libya, which were in the last few months of my ten­ure, I very ex­pli­citly said in the book that I sup­por­ted every single one of the pres­id­ent’s de­cisions.”

Gates also re­af­firmed his ad­mir­a­tion for Pres­id­ent Obama, as he has done fre­quently in re­cent days. He again went out of his way to praise Obama’s per­son­al qual­it­ies as pres­id­ent, say­ing he has nev­er be­fore seen someone who had nev­er run a ma­jor or­gan­iz­a­tion “take so quickly to mak­ing ex­ec­ut­ive de­cisions.” 

Still, Gates made clear he still does not trust some of the of­fi­cials around Obama. “I think I was more loy­al to him than some in his own White House some­times,” said Gates. Cit­ing the re­sur­rec­tion of al-Qaida-linked groups in Ir­aq fol­low­ing the full de­par­ture of U.S. troops in 2011, he warned that Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s fo­cus on a min­im­al pres­ence in Afgh­anistan or “zero” op­tion would be a “ser­i­ous stra­tegic mis­take.” Gates ad­ded: “I’m hear­ing there is still a large num­ber of people in the White House who just want to pull the plug on Afgh­anistan al­to­geth­er and just get the hell out and leave no re­sid­ual force, and I think that would be a ter­rible mis­take.”

One con­stant theme of Gates’ book is what he saw as un­seemly in­ter­fer­ence in the chain of com­mand by White House of­fi­cials, spe­cific­ally by Doni­lon. Re­spond­ing to one point of cri­ti­cism in the book, when Doni­lon raised ques­tions about the per­form­ance of a U.S. gen­er­al in Haiti — which Gates says al­most caused him to walk out of the room — the former na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­visor said that he and the De­fense sec­ret­ary sor­ted out all their is­sues in the end. “I have tre­mend­ous re­spect for the mil­it­ary, but you would ex­pect the pres­id­ent’s rep­res­ent­at­ive to press the pres­id­ent’s pri­or­it­ies hard,” Doni­lon said.

Gates, asked wheth­er he and his pub­lish­er had mis­judged by giv­ing an ex­clus­ive on the book to The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Bob Wood­ward, who in his ini­tial art­icle on the book em­phas­ized the small areas of dis­agree­ment between Gates and Obama and de­scribed it as “an ant­ag­on­ist­ic por­trait of a sit­ting pres­id­ent,” Gates avoided an­swer­ing dir­ectly, say­ing,  “I’ll leave that up to my pub­lish­ers.”

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