Meet the Press   |  January 12, 2014

MTP Panel: Implications of Gates Tell-All

A Meet the Press roundtable discusses the impact of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recently released memoir and its claims about the Obama administration.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> folks on the roundtable, two big stories we're talking about this week, new jersey governor chris christie and the bridge scandal, but also this bombshell tell-all book by former defense secretary robert gates . i'm joined by robert gibbs , former press secretary for president obama , who was president at the time. former presidential candidate and pennsylvania senator rick santorum , former congresswoman from california, now the head of the wilson center , jane harman , bloomberg view columnist, jeffrey goldberg . and chris mathews . i want to get to the substance of the debate about the president's leadership in national security affairs, particularly afghanistan . here is a key excerpt from the book. gates writing about the march 20 meeting in is the situation room . gates write, "as i sat there, i thought, the president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand afghan president hamid karzai , doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. for him, it's all about getting out." chris mathews , how scathing is this of obama 's leadership?

>> well, it has a certain tone to it, but i think he's right in the sense that president obama ran on the campaign to get us out of afghanistan . that was his mission. there's nothing wrong with that. he makes it sound like there's something wrong with that. that's tonal. the policy of this president when he came into office, got into office, was wind down two wars, and he did so. maybe what wasn't gates ' point of view, but it was obama 's.

>> is it clear, robert gibbs , if i'm reading the book and i think some of the press coverage has been overwritten, he's harshly critical of the political operation, i think that would include you, political advisers to the president --

>> i think he intimated i might have been the deputy secretary of defense. ? and he's critical about interagency process, in other words, there was a feeling that the president himself had that the military was trying to jam him on the idea of surging up forces.

>> i think one of the things you take away, at least from the excerpts of this book, is that bob gates doesn't like any questions about bob gates , whether they're from members of congress, whether they're from civilians, in the west wing or in the national security agency . look, barack obama was and i assume continues to be skeptical of our military ability to solve afghanistan . we have been in afghanistan now longer than we have been in any foreign land conducting a war in our nation's history. was this president and was the team at the white house skeptical of mission creep ? every day that i was there, and i would be shocked if it hasn't been every day since i have left. the president wanted a smaller surge of troops that was limited in time to put pressure on the afghans to have to solve their problem while we decimated and degraded al qaeda . that's what he decided. and incidentally, that's what gates supported in a book that "the post" called maddeningly self-contradictly.

>> michael moore , rick santorum --

>> they don't go together.

>> that's why i'm putting them together. because here's something he tweeted this week. " bob gates in his new book says obama appointees in the white house were, quote, suspicious of and didn't trust the military honchos. thank god."

>> the larger point to this pook in my opinion was the fact the president puts domestic politics before international concerns. everything's seen through the lens of domestic politics. that comment that was quoted about hillary and the president about why they oppose the surge and -- it is all about -- from an outsider. i'm not inside. robert may have obviously a very different perspective. from the outside, everything seems to be driven as to how can we pull things back to domestic politics and not about --

>> wait, wait, wait. go ahead.

>> i just have to -- i have to issue a small correction. i just read the book. he doesn't say that about the president. he says politics does come into the conversation, but he says specifically in terms of the president, maybe not some of the operatives, the president makes the decisions based on national security . and the truth of the matter, and you're right about the overwritten quality of some of the coverage, i mean, robert gates says specifically in his book, i agree the president made the right decisions on all the primary questions on afghanistan .

>> right.

>> so the scandal is not quite as much of a scandal has people think.

>> and why are we shocked that the elected president of the united states , who is a politician, would consider politics? he's also, by the way, the commander in chief. it's not gates . it's not the head of the military and the pentagon. it's the president who under the constitution is the commander in chief. and so he is the one who needs to be making these decisions. i haven't read the book. most of us probably haven't. i read the excerpts, which are probably not as knew wanlsed as the book, which jeffrey has read. i don't know if others here have read it yet. i wish he had waited to write this book for two reasons. number one, i think he would have thought differently away from the heat of battle. but number two, i don't think it's so cool to write a book during the term of the guy you serve, especially when you got the medal of freedom. and i hope that leon panetta , who's writing a book, will wait. jane to leon, please wait.

>> would you write a book while you were still there?

>> marvin fritz told me you should not write a book that your boss has to answer to while he's in office. and i wouldn't write a book while he's in office. look, gates made his own decision. let me address the politics of this. i think if you look at every national security decision that surrounded 13 meetings on afghanistan , there one decision that if you looked at where the american people were in putting another 33,000 american troops in afghanistan that was even remotely politically popular. the war right now is as unpopular as anything going in america right now. the notion that the president -- and i think this is why, again, it's maddeningly self-contradictory, gates puts in front of the fact that somehow that politics was drive deg situation, yet each and every decision the president made was absolutely contradictory to the politics of the moment.

>> gates does give him credit for that, for bucking not just the politics but the politicaled a advice that he was given.

>> the president when he ran the first time said the war we need to win is afghanistan . don't say he was not doing things that were consistent with his political agenda . they were. the thing i have the most problems with --

>> thought of as the good war.

>> the good war. the problems i have with this administration are less afghanistan than what we did in iraq when we pulled out of iraq , because it was politically popular to pull out of iraq and not leave --

>> let me get a comment from chris.

>> when we look at the text of what gates actually said, he said hillary clinton said her politics during the campaign against obama in the caucuses out there, iowa especially, were driven by politics, but she did think the surge worked. then it gets to the president. it doesn't say he conceded or acknowledged his politics -- he was totally against the iraq war , obviously against the surge consistently. the way people are reading this is double barreled. reallitis a shot against hillary , not against obama .

>> it's complicated. the surge probably worked because there was an indigenous pushback against the radical al qaeda forces plus the surge. in afghanistan , i was in congress at the time, i didn't support the surge. i didn't even support counterinsurgency because i didn't think it fit in afghanistan . and i expressed my view ls personally to dave petraeus , who strongly disagreed with me but who remains a close friend, so i think there was a difference of opinion among people who were seriously focused on making afghanistan come out right.

>> another figure who gets some pretty harsh treatment in this book, i think we can all agree, and that's the vice president, joe biden . he writes the following. "i think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." jeff goldberg, other than that --

>> the book is wonderfully passive aggressive. i admire your patriotism and your loyalty. but you're terrible at your job. but i love everything about you. no. i mean, going to this point about hillary , i don't even think hillary is really a target in this book. he goes out of his way to praise her as his primary partner in this administration. he has a couple of shots. you know, she's not going to appreciate that business about the surge. joe biden gets it in the neck in this. his good friend, joe biden , gets it in the neck. and most of the staff. i mean, what's so interesting about this book, and you have to read the whole thing to get this feeling, is that this is a very seemingly placid man who is boiling with rage this entire