Gates also proved invaluable in selling the "surge" as a great "success," although nearly 1,000 additional U.S. soldiers died (along with countless Iraqis) and the strategic arc toward a U.S. defeat wasn't changed. The primary "success" from the "surge" was to enable Bush and his neocon advisers to exit the scene without a clear-cut defeat wrapped around their necks.
The Gates Legend
But the legend of Robert Gates -- and the myth of the "successful surge" -- shielded him from the damaged reputations that the bloody debacle in Iraq inflicted on Bush and many neocons.
After Obama was elected in 2008, his advisers persuaded the President-elect to keep Gates on as Defense Secretary, along with the media's beloved Gen. Petraeus as a top commander. Obama ignored contrary advice from former CIA analysts who had worked with Gates and from the few journalists who understood Gates's real history.
Obama's decision to go with the "Team of Rivals" theme in assembling his national security team guaranteed that he surrounded himself with people like Gates who had no loyalty to the new administration, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who usually sided with Gates and Petraeus as they pushed for an Iraq-style "surge" in Afghanistan.
In 2009, as Obama insisted on a steady withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq -- along the lines of an agreement that the Iraqi government had forced on Bush -- the new President wanted another withdrawal plan for Afghanistan, where Bush's neglect had allowed the Taliban to make a comeback.
But Gates and Petraeus were set on guiding the inexperienced Obama into an Afghan "surge," essentially by employing the old bureaucratic trick of presenting their desired outcome as the only realistic option. Mouse-trapped by this maneuver -- and realizing the political damage that he would face if he spurned the recommendations of Gates-Petraeus-Clinton -- Obama accepted a counterinsurgency "surge" of 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan but he pushed back by trying to limit the mission and insisting on withdrawal by the end of 2014.
Gates continued to undercut the President by briefing reporters during a flight to Afghanistan that "we are in this thing to win" and presenting the war as essentially open-ended. Gates offered these credulous reporters a history lesson on Afghanistan that Gates knew to be false. He declared "that we are not going to repeat the situation in 1989" -- when the United States supposedly abandoned Afghanistan once the Soviet troops left.
Even Gates's much-ballyhooed Pentagon budget trimming -- while winning rave reviews from the news media -- was more P.R. than reality. As noted by military affairs expert Lawrence J. Korb, Gates's high-profile savings were mostly weapons projects, like the F-22, that were already slated for the scrap heap. Plus, Gates rejected any substantial cuts in future military spending despite having personally overseen a rise in the baseline Pentagon budget from $450 billion in 2006 to $550 billion when he departed in 2011.
Gates's petty vindictiveness, which had wielded against his CIA colleagues, also was apparent in his final days as Defense Secretary in 2011 when he blocked the appointment of Marine Gen. James Cartwright as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of anger over Cartwright's willingness to give President Obama's alternative options to the Afghan "surge" in 2009.
The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock reported that Cartwright's expected elevation from JCS deputy chairman to JCS chairman was nixed, in part, by Gates who "had long mistrusted Cartwright because of his independent relationship with the president and for opposing [Gates's] plan to expand the war in Afghanistan."
Gates's nasty side resurfaces in his new memoir, Duty, according to press accounts before its release on Jan. 14. Gates reportedly lashes out at Vice President Joe Biden and other Obama administration officials who dared to express doubts about the wisdom of the counterinsurgency "surge" in Afghanistan.
Even more damaging, Gates offers a negative depiction of President Obama and former Secretary of State Clinton, portraying them as shallow political opportunists who supposedly had opposed the Iraq War "surge" only because of cheap politics. Gates further lambastes Obama for sending troops to fight and die in Afghanistan without believing in the mission.
According to Bob Woodward's account of Duty, Gates concluded by early 2010 that Obama "doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."
Woodward wrote that Gates was "leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat [by asserting] that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was 'skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail.'"