If not for the controversy surrounding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the week’s No. 1 political story might well have been the stylistic and substantive thrashing that Vice President Joe Biden received in the unusually candid memoirs of Robert Gates.
The former defense secretary singled him out for everything from his ultra-political approach to serious national security issues to persistently displaying an anti-military attitude.
While Gates’ decision to cash in at the expense of colleagues still in office raises the same ethical questions as books written by other former officials in recent years, his even-handed, nonpartisan reputation gives the judgments in his memoir “Duty” greater value than they might otherwise have had.
And just as examples of Christie’s bully-like behavior could affect his White House hopes, the issues Gates raises could impact a potential 2016 Biden presidential bid.
Interestingly, his memoir displays a sharp contrast in assessing the two potential 2016 Democratic hopefuls, with far more passages critical of Biden than of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That mainly reflects the fact that Gates and Clinton were often allies during internal administration battles, though his criticism of Biden goes beyond their substantive differences.
Perhaps most damningly, Gates accuses Biden — and President Barack Obama — of disrespect for the nation’s military.
At a November 2009 meeting that agreed to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, Gates describes how Biden noted he had favored a different approach but that, now that the decision was made, “the military ‘should consider the president’s decision as an order.’
“‘I’m giving an order,’ Obama quickly said,” prompting Gates to write, “I was shocked. I had never heard a president explicitly frame a decision as a direct order. With the American military, it is completely unnecessary.”
“Obama’s ‘order,’ at Biden’s urging, demonstrated in my view the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture,” the secretary continues. “That order was unnecessary and insulting.”
A year later, when considering reduced U.S. troop levels, Gates writes, “Biden was relentless in pushing his view and in attacking the integrity of the senior military leadership. A White House insider told me he was telling the president, ‘They’ll screw you every time.’ ”
That’s not his only criticism of the vice president. Early on, Biden asked Gates “how he should define his role in the national security arena.” When Gates replied, “he listened closely, thanked me and then did precisely the opposite of what I recommended.”
Gates found Biden “impossible not to like. He’s down to earth, funny, profane and humorously self-aware of his motormouth ... a man of integrity.’
“Still,” Gates goes on, “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” a judgment many Democrats would question.
Gates doesn’t criticize Clinton as motivated by politics while secretary of state, and says “we (Gates and Clinton) would develop a very strong partnership, in part because it turned out we agreed on almost every important issue.”
He does criticize her for acknowledging that her opposition to the 2007 surge in Iraq, while still a senator, “had been political because she was facing him (Obama) in the Iowa primary (caucuses).” Gates says that admission, and a similar one in which Obama “conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political,” was “as surprising as it was dismaying.”
While it’s questionable how much this matters two years before the 2016 primaries and caucuses, the effect is to portray Biden as more of a narrow partisan, in contrast to Clinton’s broader, less political approach.
That, in turn, may explain why Clinton would be a stronger Democratic candidate in 2016 than Biden, more likely to appeal beyond the confines of the Democratic base.