The White House scrambled Wednesday to defend President Obama against criticism by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who accused the president in a new book of lacking confidence in his own military strategy in Afghanistan and ridiculed Vice President Joseph R. Biden as a worthless adviser.
Blindsided by the latest harsh critique from a respected former Cabinet member, Mr. Obama’s aides and surrogates fanned out on the airwaves with a strategy that called Mr. Gates‘ assessments wrong — politely but firmly.
The White House also tried to focus most of the attention on Mr. Gates‘ criticism of Mr. Biden, going so far as to invite journalists in for the rare opportunity to photograph the vice president having lunch with Mr. Obama, as if to demonstrate his value to the team.
Mr. Gates, a Republican who left his post at the Pentagon in July 2011, has written that Mr. Obama didn’t “believe in his own strategy” of ordering a troop surge to Afghanistan in 2009, despite his having promised one during the 2008 presidential campaign. And he accused Mr. Biden of “poisoning the well” with the military and being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
The man who has served four presidents, including as director of the CIA, said Mr. Obama’s White House takes “micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level.”
His book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” is due to be released next week and copies have leaked, creating a furor. The West Wing obtained a copy Tuesday night, hours after excerpts began circulating online.
William Daley, who served as Mr. Obama’s chief of staff between 2011 and 2012, said he has tremendous respect for Mr. Gates, but disagrees with his assessment.
“This rush to do books by people who leave an administration, while an administration is ongoing, I think it unfortunate,” Mr. Daley said on “CBS This Morning.” “When you are pursuing a war at the same time, and one that is very controversial with the American people and very difficult on our military, I think it is just a disservice, to be very frank with you.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney disputed Mr. Gates‘ claim that the president lacked faith in his own administration’s plan for improving the military situation in Afghanistan, which involved sending 30,000 more troops to the region.
“The president has great faith in the troops that carried out the mission and in the mission itself,” Mr. Carney said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not a challenge. Of course it is.”
In a backhanded compliment, Mr. Carney said Mr. Gates deserved praise as “part of a team that helped bring an end to the Iraq war.” As defense secretary under President George W. Bush, Mr. Gates directed a troop surge in the Iraq war before Mr. Obama was elected on the promise of ending that conflict.
The timing of Mr. Gates‘ accusations is particularly bad for the Obama administration, which is trying to reach an agreement soon with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (whom Mr. Gates said Mr. Obama “can’t stand”) on keeping a small number of U.S. troops in the country beyond 2014.
The criticism comes on the heels of similar complaints by Mr. Obama’s other former defense secretary, Democrat Leon Panetta, who said Washington is being governed “by crisis.”
While Mr. Panetta said the president is “extremely bright,” he added: “You have to engage in the process. This is a town where it’s not enough to feel you have the right answers. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and you’ve got to really engage in the process that’s what governing is all about.”
Together, the assessments by two of Mr. Obama’s closest former advisers paint an unflattering image of a president who doesn’t value the advice of his military chiefs and doesn’t want to engage in the political necessity of building relationships in Washington. Faced with that portrait, White House aides and Obama allies sought instead to focus most of the discussion on Mr. Gates‘ attack on Mr. Biden.