Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivers blistering criticisms of Vice President Joe Biden in a new tell-all memoir that's set Washington abuzz
— and has the White House defending President Barack Obama's No. 1 aide.
Biden, who has served as the administration's point man on Iraq and spent years leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is "a man of integrity," Gates writes, according to what amounts to a review of his book in the New York Times, "[but] I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades."
The White House politely but firmly defended Biden.
“The President disagrees with Secretary Gates’ assessment – from his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America’s leadership in the world," National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement emailed to reporters. "President Obama relies on his good counsel every day.”
Gates' line is one frequently heard from conservatives when knocking Biden. This reporter heard it frequently during the 2008 campaign, chiefly in connection with the future vice president's rejected suggestion that Iraq be partitioned along sectarian lines. But Gates has his own issues with such accusations.
(Hayden's statement has its own chilly moment: "The president wishes Secretary Gates well as he recovers from his recent injury, and discusses his book.” The former Pentagon boss reportedly fell on New Year's Day and fractured his first vertebrae, ending up in a neck brace.)
The White House statement does not defend Hillary Clinton, whom Gates describes as saying that she opposed the "surge" in Iraq for political reasons (she was facing Obama, a devoted opponent of the war in Iraq, in the Democratic presidential primaries). It also does not defend numerous other officials Gates skewers by name in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.” But that may come later.
Shortly after the statement went out, the White House announced that news photographers would be allowed to snap pictures of Obama and Biden's regular lunch together on Wednesday
— a nearly unheard-of occurrence that will serve as a visual reminder that the two are close.
The book, reportedly coming in at about 600 pages, is the first account of Obama's first-term national security policy from inside the Cabinet. It's also likely to draw intense scrutiny: Gates, 70, left Washington arguably one of the most knowledgeable and respected civil servants of his generation.
Gates, a Republican, had served as former president George W. Bush's final defense secretary starting in 2006. Obama asked him to stay on.
Still, some of Gates' complaints
— at least as reported by the Washington Post and New York Times
— seem a bit odd.
For example, the Post's Bob Woodward writes, Gates grew angry about how "controlling" the White House was of national security policy. That's nothing new coming from the Pentagon.
But "[i]t 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,'" Woodward writes.
If the Post's account is correct and complete, Gates appears to suggest that the president of the United States should not discuss military options one-on-one with, say, his secretary of state. Or his national security adviser. At least not without a military chaperone.