Ever since the Watergate scandal broke more than 40 years ago, the American media has had the stylistically-deplorable impulse to add the suffix “-gate” onto any kerfuffle, regardless of its level of seriousness. It’s become a shortcut to sensationalism, deserved or not. The trend has become so pervasive that it even appears in the African nation of Malawi, where a government corruption scandal got the moniker “Cash-Gate” applied to it.
That may not be so easy with the political eruption this week in Washington, following the release of excerpts from the memoirs of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The excerpts, which will undoubtedly work as intended to produce sales of the first Cabinet-level memoir of the Obama administration, allege that President Barack Obama escalated the Afghanistan war while being convinced that the strategy didn’t work.
Gates also accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of opposing the similar 2007 escalation in Iraq entirely for political purposes, recalling his first-hand witness of a conversation between Clinton and Obama where she made this damaging admission.
Let’s start with Gates’ view of President Obama. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward frames this as “one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat,” which is to put them into harm’s way merely for political expediency.
The decision in December 2009 to increase force strength by adding 30,000 combat troops to the theater followed from Obama’s campaign pledge to put the “distraction” of Iraq behind the US and focus on the legitimate front of the war on terror. However, in private discussions, Gates writes that Obama was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” even while ordering the troops into combat.
Needless to say, this feeds into a lot of pre-existing opinions of President Obama. Conservatives, especially those in favor of a robust forward military strategy, never believed that Obama was in it for victory. In fact, many pointed out at the time that the President never once included the word “victory” in his speech announcing the escalation. As I wrote at the time:
The only sense of real mission I get from this speech is that we’re going to send 30,000 more troops now so we can start evacuating all of them in the summer of 2011. It sounds like a slow-motion Dunkirk, and it recalls what Winston Churchill had to say after being congratulated for rescuing the entire British Army and a good portion of the French Army in 1940 from that massive cross-Channel evacuation: “Wars are not won by evacuations.” And apparently Obama agrees, since he didn’t bother to talk about victory at all, but instead treated it as a massive responsibility that he reluctantly will fulfill.
As revelations go, this is useful for confirmation, but not exactly a surprise. It’s also useful for its context. Gates reveals that Obama hadn’t planned on making any changes to the war effort at the time, but was blindsided by a demand from then-commander General Stanley McChrystal for a major expansion in combat troops in order to emulate the successful “surge” strategy in Iraq.
The request forced high-level discussions that Obama would have preferred to avoid, but in the end produced a decision with which Gates ultimately approved – as he also states in his book. Indeed, Gates writes, “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions” on policy and strategy in Afghanistan, and generally for Defense.
The other blockbuster from “Gates-gate” this week involved the presumed front-runner among Democrats to replace Obama as commander-in-chief, Hillary Clinton. According to Gates, she confessed to Obama in his presence that “her opposition to the  surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary.” In his reply, Obama “conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political.”
Again, no one who compared Clinton’s pro-Iraq War position with the surge opposition would have been surprised to hear that kind of admission. This also plays to type for both Bill and Hillary Clinton, who have long been accused of having no real political principles except that which promote Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The Post’s Chris Cillizza mentions this as a possible danger to Clinton’s (presumed) presidential ambitions in 2016, but it’s difficult to see why. For better and worse, the Clintons and their poll-driven principles are well known, and once again this only reinforces an existing narrative rather than provides a surprising new one.
Playing politics with war would be a serious political demerit, but only among those who labor under the fantasy that politics plays no part in it. Even during World War II, politics – both domestic and international – routinely interfered with strategic decisions, as David Irving’s The War Between The Generals entertainingly recounts. In a war that enjoys much less political consensus than that epic struggle, political division and calculation is hardly shocking, even if it still reveals basic pettiness.
And once again, the excerpts from the Gates’ memoir suggest that any Clinton campaign will borrow liberally (pun unintended) from the book. Gates’ assessment of his fellow Cabinet member could hardly be more effusive: “I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.” That suggests that there may well be plenty more anecdotes with less sensational value that the Clintons can mine, too.
This gets to the heart of “Gates-gate,” which is the lack of context created by the release of sensational excerpts. No doubt this will sell lots of books, but that was probably going to be true anyway. If Gates really felt that Obama deceived and manipulated voters and institutions for his own gain at the expense of the lives of American troops, one would presume that Gates would have resigned immediately to expose it.
Gates came close to resigning, one excerpt recounts, but that was prompted by Congressional machinations, which he bitterly condemns. The full scope of his memoir might provide some real insight into the administrations in which he served, but it does us no good to get ahead of the story before reading the entire book to grasp the context and nuance of his experience.
If that approach is a scandal, call it “perspective-gate.”
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