Jewish World Review Jan 14, 2014/ 13 Shevat, 5774
Gates waited too long to speak out
By Dana Milbank
I think he waited too long.
The critics, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), are probably correct about the damage the former defense secretary has done with his memoir. He has undermined a sitting president’s ability to conduct foreign policy, complicated the end of the war in Afghanistan, and made it less likely that future presidents will reach across the aisle for top advisers.
In his memoir, officially set to be released Tuesday, Gates also undermines his reputation as an honorable man above Washington maneuvers. Now he looks like just another hack settling scores — and he’s on a book tour defensively complaining, as he did on NBC’s “Today” show Monday, that his words have been “hijacked” by partisans “taking quotes out of context.”
For all these reasons, Gates should have made his objections known sooner, when he still might have been able to do something about them. Instead, by his own account, he seethed quietly. Had he spoken up at the time — privately or, if that didn’t work, publicly — he might have had some influence in changing the problems he saw: a worthless Congress, an insular White House staff and a president insufficiently devoted to his own policies.
“I never confronted Obama directly over what I . . . saw as the president’s determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations,” he writes. “His White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon.”
On CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” Rita Braver asked Gates whether, in retrospect, he should have spoken to the president about this directly. Gates replied that “things don’t happen that way if the president doesn’t want them to happen that way.”
Braver asked whether he thinks “they are still running things from the White House.”
“I actually think it’s gotten worse,” Gates said with a laugh.
It probably has. I and many others have been writing for years about this White House’s insularity and the president’s vacillating public support for positions — and how this is impairing everything from Syria policy to the Obamacare rollout. Gates might have improved the situation if he had used his considerable clout to make the case to Obama — and if that failed, to voice his concerns to Congress, the media and the public. Instead, he followed a favorite saying of his: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
Gates had a reputation for being a truth-teller during his time in office, cleaning up the mess at the Pentagon left by Donald Rumsfeld and helping the Obama administration forge a consensus on Afghanistan. But, by his own account, he wasn’t telling the whole truth.
Think of the national conversation that the only person to serve as defense secretary under a Republican and a Democratic president could have started by saying at the time what he thought of Congress: “uncivil, incompetent in fulfilling basic constitutional responsibilities, micro-managerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned, often putting self (and reelection) before country.”
Rather than write about it years later, imagine the impact he would have had if he actually did what he had the urge to do: “All too frequently, sitting at that witness table, the exit lines were on the tip of my tongue: I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit. Find somebody else.”
No, it wouldn’t have served any purpose for Gates to have volunteered in real time his belief that Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy” for 40 years. But he certainly could have been more forceful at the time in his objections to Tom Donilon and other White House staffers meddling in the chain of command. After one such incident, he writes, “My initial instinct was to storm out, telling the president on the way that he didn’t need two secretaries of defense.”
But he held his tongue, and now Gates is answering critics who think he should have held it until after Obama leaves office. “These issues are with us today,” Gates told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “These are not issues that can wait to be written about in 2017.”
They shouldn’t have had to wait until 2014, either.
Earlier this month, when bipartisanship was still in the air, Reid told Bloomberg’s Al Hunt that he wouldn’t campaign against McConnell, who is facing a difficult reelection. “I’m a traditionalist here, and that isn’t anything I’ve ever done and will not do,” Reid said.
That was a bit disingenuous, because Reid had already hosted a fundraiser in Las Vegas for McConnell’s Democratic opponent, and Reid’s political action committee had already given her money. The candidate, Alison Lundergan Grimes, would probably be hurt politically by appearing with Reid, anyway.
But in calling himself a traditionalist, Reid was arguing against the mafia culture that has gripped the Senate since 2004, when Bill Frist, then the Republican leader, went to South Dakota to campaign, successfully, for the defeat of then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle. The DSCC, under Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, retaliated by running TV ads targeting McConnell in 2008. In 2012, the NRSC, run by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, raised money to try to defeat Reid in Nevada. The political committees are under the de facto control of the majority or minority leader, and several senators have used the chairmanships as steppingstones to leadership.
When they aren’t ordering hits on each other, the senators use the committees to taunt each other. Monday morning, the Republican committee issued a statement saying: “Harry Reid will tell you he’s not concerned about losing the majority — hell, Reid will say just about anything on most days, but his actions speak louder than his words.” Wednesday, the Republican group declared: “Vulnerable incumbent Senate Democrats — from Kay Hagan to Jeff Merkley, Mary Landrieu to Mark Pryor, Jeanne Shaheen to Mark Begich all lied to their constituents.”
When your day starts with trash talk from people who are trying to kill you politically, is it any wonder things quickly devolve?
Reid, on the Senate floor this week, accused Republicans of “hostage-taking” and ridiculed McConnell for delaying what the GOP leader called “non-essential” confirmations: “Does the Republican leader consider the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security — the individual tasked with protecting us from terrorist attacks — ‘non-essential’?”
McConnell, in turn, told reporters he “can’t imagine” Republicans would agree to increase the debt limit without more spending restrictions. And he delivered a broadside against Reid for stripping Republicans’ right to filibuster nominees: “As we end the year, it’s a tragedy the way the Senate is being run into the ground by basically one person. . . . It’s going to be hard to get the Senate back to normal.”
But he’s wrong there. Going to the mattresses is the new normal.
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