By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON: The criticism has been coming from all ideological quarters: Robert Gates should have waited longer before airing his differences with President Obama, Vice President Biden, the White House staff and Congress.
I think he waited too long.
The critics, including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., are probably correct about the damage the former defense secretary has done with his memoir. He has undermined a sitting president’s ability to conduct foreign policy, complicated the end of the war in Afghanistan, and made it less likely that future presidents will reach across the aisle for top advisers.
In his memoir, Gates also undermines his reputation as an honorable man above Washington maneuvers. Now he looks like just another hack settling scores — and he’s on a book tour defensively complaining, as he did on NBC’s Today show Monday, that his words have been “hijacked” by partisans “taking quotes out of context.”
For all these reasons, Gates should have made his objections known sooner, when he still might have been able to do something about them. Instead, by his own account, he seethed quietly. Had he spoken up at the time — privately or, if that didn’t work, publicly — he might have had some influence in changing the problems he saw: a worthless Congress, an insular White House staff and a president insufficiently devoted to his own policies.
“I never confronted Obama directly over what I … saw as the president’s determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations,” he writes. “His White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon.”
On CBS’ Sunday Morning, Rita Braver asked Gates whether, in retrospect, he should have spoken to the president about this directly. Gates replied that “things don’t happen that way if the president doesn’t want them to happen that way.”
Braver asked whether he thinks “they are still running things from the White House.”
“I actually think it’s gotten worse,” Gates said with a laugh.
It probably has. I and many others have been writing for years about this White House’s insularity and the president’s vacillating public support for positions, and how this is impairing everything from Syria policy to the Obamacare rollout. Gates might have improved the situation if he had used his considerable clout to make the case to Obama — and if that failed, to voice his concerns to Congress, the media and the public. Instead, he followed a favorite saying of his: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
Gates had a reputation for being a truth-teller during his time in office, cleaning up the mess at the Pentagon left by Donald Rumsfeld and helping the Obama administration forge a consensus on Afghanistan. But, by his own account, he wasn’t telling the whole truth.
Think of the national conversation that the only person to serve as defense secretary under a Republican and a Democratic president could have started by saying at the time what he thought of Congress: “uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities, micro-managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and re-election) before country.”
Rather than write about it years later, imagine the impact he would have had if he actually did what he had the urge to do: “All too frequently, sitting at that witness table, the exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else.”
No, it wouldn’t have served any purpose for Gates to have volunteered in real time his belief that Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy” issue for 40 years. But he certainly could have been more forceful at the time in his objections to Tom Donilon and other White House staffers meddling in the chain of command.
But he held his tongue, and now Gates is answering critics who think he should have held it until after Obama leaves office. “These issues are with us today,” Gates told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “These are not issues that can wait to be written about in 2017.”
They shouldn’t have had to wait until 2014, either.
Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @Milbank.