Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Bob Gates vs. the White House

After publishing the latest in its series of stories that seemed designed to help burnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation ahead of the 2016 election, the New York Times’s effort had become so transparent, and it had been called out so noticeably, that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal felt compelled to deny it. He wrote, “let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton.”

Noted. But Vice President Joe Biden might be among those stifling a laugh at Rosenthal’s assertion. Today both the Washington Post and New York Times published revelations from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s forthcoming memoir. The Post’s account, written by Bob Woodward, notes that Clinton apparently admitted to President Obama that her opposition to the “surge” was pure politics, since Obama was opposed to the surge and they were in competition at the time. Picking up from that, Woodward’s Post colleague Chris Cillizza speculates on how the excerpt could harm Clinton’s prospects:

But, remember this is Hillary Clinton we are talking about.  And, the criticism that has always haunted her is that everything she does is infused with politics — that there is no core set of beliefs within her but rather just political calculation massed upon political calculation. Remember that she began slipping in the 2008 Democratic primary when her opponents seized on an overly political answer on giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants during a debate in  late 2o07.

Gates’s version of why Clinton opposed the surge fits perfectly into this existing good-politics-makes-good-policy narrative about the former secretary of state. And that’s what makes it dangerous for her —  and why you can be sure she (or her people) will (and must) dispute Gates’s recollection quickly and definitively.

Whether it hurts Clinton might depend largely on who runs against her in the Democratic primary. But he’s right that the reputation of both Clintons has always been not to say a single word that hasn’t been focus-grouped into the ground. If Clinton was hoping her time as secretary of state would temper that reputation, the Gates memoir is yet another example of how difficult it can be for a politician to shake an entrenched narrative, especially one, like this, that is accurate.

The Post story isn’t kind to Biden either. (It’s brutal toward the Obama White House in general, but Obama has no more presidential elections ahead of him.) Gates accuses Biden of “poisoning the well” against the military, and when Biden and Donilon tried to order Gates around, he apparently responded: “The last time I checked, neither of you are in the chain of command.” The Obama administration was notoriously insular and incurious about the world outside them. But quotes like this, coming from a former defense secretary, still sting:

It got so bad during internal debates over whether to intervene in Libya in 2011 that Gates says he felt compelled to deliver a “rant” because the White House staff was “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”

Gates says his instructions to the Pentagon were: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”

The Times, however, goes easier on Clinton and tougher on Biden with its quotes, including this uppercut:

Mr. Gates calls Mr. Biden “a man of integrity,” but he questions the vice president’s judgment. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Mr. Gates writes.

I suppose it can be argued that the Post’s lack of interest in examining how these revelations might derail a Biden presidential candidacy is it’s own sort of pro-Clinton tilt. The implication is that only one of those candidates has prospects worth protecting (or derailing), and it isn’t Biden.

Unless the reporters who read advance copies of the book missed something juicier, nothing in Gates’s memoir seems likely to spoil anyone’s presidential aspirations, and I doubt Gates has any interest in doing so anyway. Picking out excerpts and anecdotes can easily skew the perception of the book, especially before the public has had a chance to read it. But the splash being made by these (mostly unsurprising) insider claims is a testament to the credibility Gates has earned over his distinguished career, and suggests the considerable authority his account of these last few years will carry.