Let’s not mince words here: Robert Gates has just betrayed the president who appointed him and gave him the Medal of Freedom.
Not because the former Defense secretary has written a book ripping Barack Obama for his handling of the war in Afghanistan: Gates has every right to do that. Not because he described Obama as failing to trust the military: he has every right to do that as well.
No, the betrayal involves the disclosure of private conversations that Obama had every reason to believe would remain confidential. How can a president conduct candid conversations with his inner circle if he fears he’s providing fodder for a future best-seller?
Gates is hardly the first official to engage in such a double-cross. But it’s a surprise because he’s always conducted himself with class. He has a sterling reputation inside the Beltway. He is a public-spirited Republican who agreed to stay on at the Pentagon under a president of the other party after George W. Bush left office.
That reputation makes the Gates critique in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” all the more devastating. He accused Obama of ordering a troop buildup in Afghanistan while not really believing in his own policy. And he recounted Hillary Clinton confiding that she had opposed Bush’s 2007 surge in Iraq for political reasons because of the presidential campaign, and Obama “vaguely” agreeing—a damaging anecdote for Hillary.
But the book is riddled with contradictions. Gates winds up saying that Obama got all the decisions right on Afghanistan, praises the courage of his Afghan surge in the face of public opposition, and credits him with approving the mission to take out bin Laden--over Gates’ opposition.
Hillary defenders, meanwhile, can point to his assessment of her as “smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.”
Gates is in the midst of a full media rollout: leaks to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and the New York Times, an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal, interviews lined up on CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” NBC’s “Today” and Fox’s “Hannity,” among others. The more he rips his former boss, the more books he’ll sell.
Gates is the latest to cash in on his government service. Bush’s former spokesman, Scott McClellan, accused his ex-boss of running a “political propaganda campaign” to sell the Iraq war and “manipulating public opinion.”
Paul O’Neill, fired by Bush as Treasury secretary, skewered him in a book, disclosing that Dick Cheney had said in a private meeting that the White House didn’t care about government overspending because “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”
Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism adviser, used his book to accuse the Bush administration of ignoring warnings of a possible Al Qaeda attack in 2001.
When George Stephanopoulos left the Clinton White House, he charged that the “stupid, selfish and self-destructive” Bill Clinton was unfit to be elected—and his book included scenes in which Hillary cried. Stephanopoulos, now with ABC News, told me Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky mess changed his assessment.
Gates, in his book, seems angry at a White House that insisted on running defense policy and challenging the military. There’s a healthy dose of score-settling here. He even says he detested his job.
But Gates also admits that he often held his tongue rather than voice the criticisms he felt so strongly. Instead, he saved it for the book.
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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington.