Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been facing criticism and scorn from some media members for having the audacity to mildly criticize President Obama and some administration officials while Obama is still in office. On Tuesday, Gates appeared on the PBS NewsHour to face another round of questioning about his newly released memoir.
Midway through the interview, anchor Judy Woodruff suggested that the former defense secretary could lower morale among troops on the ground overseas: [Video below. MP3 audio here.]
Secretary Gates, you make it clear you care so deeply about the American troops. You are fiercely supportive of them. You're not at all worried, though, about affecting the morale of the troops with a book like this that questions the commander-in-chief's commitment to the war?
Woodruff is missing the point of Gates’ major criticism of Obama in the book. The secretary believed that it was the president who was hurting troop morale by showing a lack of passion and conviction about the missions he was sending these soldiers to fight. Gates thought Obama needed to firmly believe in the Afghan War if it were to be successful.
It was wrong of Woodruff to imply that the troops wouldn’t question Obama’s commitment to the war if Gates hadn’t written this book. The veteran anchor essentially insulted the troops’ intelligence, and Gates called her out on it:
[I]n terms of the environment in Washington and so on, I mean, the troops know the score. They read the newspapers. They watch -- they watch television. And it's not like they're living in a cave over there.
Gates was not causing a problem for the troops; he was only pointing out an already existing problem.
Woodruff’s last “question” to Gates was actually not a question, but a lecture. He's no longer around to speak for himself, but Woodruff used a late Democratic statesman to scold Gates:
The late Sen. Pat Moynihan, among other things, used to rail against what he called tell-all books by insiders. He said it was a disservice to the free exchange of ideas, that it made people hold back, because they thought they might be quoted somewhere in a book, and thus it was a disservice to history.
Gates pushed back against Woodruff’s nagging, saying he didn’t think his was a tell-all book and that he was as critical of himself as anyone else in the book.
Woodruff’s treatment of Gates was markedly different from the way Scott McClellan, former President George W. Bush’s press secretary, was treated when he appeared on the NewsHour in May 2008. Back then, McClellan had released a book that was very critical of the Bush White House he had served. Rather than lecturing McClellan about the irresponsibility of releasing a tell-all account while his former boss was still in office, anchor Jeffrey Brown asked why McClellan had waited so long to air his grievances:
But that leads to something that a lot of people are wondering here about why you waited to say it until now. Why not speak up when there was a chance to, if not change things, at least let people know that there was some what you`re now calling propaganda or misleading going on?
Below is a partial transcript of the Jan. 14 interview with Gates:
JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Gates, you make it clear you care so deeply about the American troops. You are fiercely supportive of them. You're not at all worried, though, about affecting the morale of the troops with a book like this that questions the commander in chief's commitment to the war?
ROBERT GATES: Well, I think -- I think that underscoring that I agreed with all of the president's strategic decisions on Afghanistan and the fact that he has stuck to those decisions, the decisions with respect to the war have all been made. We know we're coming out the end of December of this year.
We know that the U.S. would like to have a residual force. The president has decided that. The agreement has been negotiated. We're just waiting for the Afghans to agree to it. So I think that all of the fundamental decisions to Afghanistan have already been made. And, frankly, in terms of the environment in Washington and so on, I mean, the troops know the score. They read the newspapers. They watch -- they watch television.
And it's not like they're living in a cave over there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question. The late Sen. Pat Moynihan, among other things, used to rail against what he called tell-all books by insiders. He said it was a disservice to the free exchange of ideas, that it made people hold back, because they thought they might be quoted somewhere in a book, and thus it was a disservice to history.
ROBERT GATES: Well, I -- I think that books to settle scores, kiss-and-tell books, I have -- I have the same view as Senator Moynihan. I don't think this book is either of those.
I criticize myself as much, if not more, in the book than I do anybody else. I think I'm fair -- fair in my treatment of both presidents. I think, overall, the book is very positive about both presidents. And, frankly, there are things in the book that are of contemporary relevance and in the face -- in problems that we're facing today, whether it's whether to use military force in Syria, whether it's to potentially use military force against Iran and its nuclear program, how to deal with the Chinese and the Russians.
I have been at this under eight presidents. I bring a perspective and experience that I don't think anybody else has. And, frankly, to wait until 2017 makes any contribution that I could make irrelevant. And I think that what I have in this book, when people do finally read the book now that it's available today, is provide some perspective on these issues and hopefully some guidance.