Gates, Obama and denying reality in the Middle East

January 8, 2014

The talk about former Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ blistering new memoir “Duty” has focused on the description of President Barack Obama’s tense 2011 Situation Room meeting with his top military advisers. A frustrated Obama expresses doubts about General David Petraeus, then U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and questions whether the administration can do business with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“As I sat there,” Gates wrote, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand 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.”

Republicans quickly seized on these criticisms as proof Obama was a dithering commander in chief. Democrats, in turn, hailed Obama for standing up to the Pentagon brass.

Yet the book — and the reactions to it — represents something far larger: a fundamental, post-Iraq and Afghanistan change in how Americans view the use of military force. Gates, joining Obama, liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, is arguing that Washington relies on military intervention far too often.

“Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort,” Gates wrote in a short excerpt that ran in the Wall Street Journal. “On the left, we hear about the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership.”

“There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do,” he added, “and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.”

For all the talk about stepping back from the region, however, the administration’s Middle East priorities still match those of Republican and Democratic administrations for the last 50 years.

Consider Obama’s landmark U.N. speech in September, when he laid out his second-term aspirations. He stated that the United States would “use all elements of our power, including military force,” to secure four “core interests” in the region.

He vowed to “confront external aggression” against our allies, “ensure the free flow of energy,” dismantle terrorist networks that “threaten our people” and “not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Yet Sunday, when militants affiliated with al Qaeda seized control of parts of the Iraqi cities Ramadi and Fallujah, the White House offered a different scenario.

“It’s not in America’s interests to have troops in the middle of every conflict in the Middle East,” Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said in an email to the New York Times. “Or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East.”

James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told me Tuesday that the real problem is that the White House tries to have it both ways politically — seeking to protect American economic interests even as it talks of withdrawal.

“They want everything,” Jeffrey said.

During a telephone interview, Jeffrey stated that if Obama wants to achieve the four Mideast goals that he laid out in his U.N. speech, he must maintain the credible threat of military force. This means air strikes and other limited efforts, not Iraq-style invasions. Jeffrey specifically criticized the administration for repeatedly suggesting that any U.S. force would lead to another Iraq.

“The sin of this administration is conflating any use of military force with that,” Jeffrey said, referring to Iraq.

In an email exchange with me Tuesday, Rhodes flatly rejected that criticism and insisted the administration has used “many different ways to advance U.S. interests.”

Rhodes noted that the United States uses force in the region, citing drone strikes against militants in Yemen. Washington provides military aid to Iraq, he said, as well as to other governments battling militants. And he said the administration uses diplomacy — referring to current efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran.

“It is dangerous and costly to simply revert, time and again, to the use of military force as the only way to advance our interests,” Rhodes added, “it has to be seen as one tool among many.”

Rhodes’ points about the administration’s actual policies are correct. But the White House rhetoric is inconsistent and contradictory.

The administration sounds a pacifist tone in the United States but has carried out covert drone strikes that have killed more than 2,000 people around the world. It talks of upholding international norms but raises the specter of “another Iraq” when it comes to using conventional military force.

The administration’s messaging on Syria has been particularly erratic. Obama first demanded President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster and threatened air strikes if the “red line” of WMD was crossed. He then backed down on both.

For better or worse, the world — and America’s — economy remain deeply entangled with the Middle East. Even if the United States becomes energy independent, oil from the region fuels China’s production of cheap consumer goods to Americans. It also supports European growth, which boosts U.S. companies’ profits.

If the Middle East descends into chaos and oil prices soar, the world, and America’s, economy would stall.

Obama’s U.N. speech was one of his best. He should stand by those four core American interests and, if needed, use limited force as a last resort to defend them.

Yes, the United States should mount fewer military interventions in the region. But that does not absolve Obama — and all of us — from facing difficult choices in the Middle East.

Americans do benefit from a world economic order based on cheap, reliable Middle Eastern oil. Pretending we don’t is a fantasy.


PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama speaks next to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (R) in a Cabinet meeting, at the White House in Washington, June 22, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Barack Obama (L) delivers remarks as Defense Secretary Robert Gates listens, at the White House in Washington, April 9,2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates walk back to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, June 23, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing


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The Middle East will descend into chaos and oil prices will soar. I’ll have to trade in my Chevy Suburban for a Honda Accord. Tragedy!

The Middle East has already descended into chaos. The Iraq War – the Bush II War – destabilized the region. We will be paying the price for that war for a long time. And we will be paying for Bush administration incompetence in the run-up to 9/11.

But the smart money thinks the price of oil – that lovely cheap oil – could actually go down if Iran sanctions are lifted and they come back online in the oil market.

Give me home truths, give me cliches – I can’t think, it hurts my brain. Give me “climate change”.

Posted by foiegras | Report as abusive

“As I sat there,” Gates wrote, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand 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.”

Pundits forget: the above statement is why the American People voted Obama into office!

Posted by Wgward | Report as abusive

“There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do…”

What a breath of fresh air!

You’ll never hear this from “Bomb Bomb” McCain and his ilk.
For them it’s one lucrative war after another, regardless the consequences to the country.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

‘Americans do benefit from a world economic order based on cheap, reliable Middle Eastern oil. Pretending we don’t is a fantasy.’
While this is true (although I would question the term ‘reliable’), ultimately it is also the bane of humankind. The faster we ween ourselves off of Middle Eastern oil, the better the environment will be, the better the political situation will be, and these ‘tribal leaders’ who support world-wide terrorist activities will go back to living in tents and return to their 10th century ideas.
We must find the technology to get off oil as fast as we can. The future of humans on this planet depends on it…..

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

“Americans do benefit from a world economic order based on cheap, reliable Middle Eastern oil. Pretending we don’t is a fantasy.” – well, a nuclear-powered Mars rower was a much wilder fantasy just 50 years ago…

Thank you edgyinchina for “stealing” the rest of my comment.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Pres. Obama, in my opinion, is distilling/winding down/culling those persons, [companies, generals, admirals, opinion moguls]influential in the “military-defense establishment” so that he can move forward with “Obama” policies that are identifiable. So far the President has had to play “juggle the bottles” with the mess he had handed to him by BushII. [I know, second term, should have had time by now, too slow….] Only now is the military being re-focused. IMHOP we will see implementation of some radical changes in dealings with Israel/Palestine, Syria and Iran. In our own hemisphere even Cuba may be on the table. Hope springs eternal, and I am hopeful.
Thomas E. Shafovaloff

Posted by ThomasShaf | Report as abusive

Another McNamara who didn’t speak up while in office, drawing a salary, but played the game and then says never believed in policy. Chickensh..

Posted by CMEBARK | Report as abusive

For once, a President that shows fortitude to lead–a President that balances the complexities of the world we live, and understands that the road to hell is paved with man’s good intentions.

Posted by 0okm9ijn | Report as abusive

This idiot gets to write tripe for a well run outfit like Reuters.

Karzai has stolen billions, has not been a good actor toward this administration. The rest of our allies have left Afghanistan, which is why the president called in the Chiefs to expedite our pullout in 2014. That was his goal, not the France type liberation of Afghanistan.

Confront external aggression against our allies has worked with no London, Madrid,Bali on his watch.

Ensure the free flow of energy has not seen any Gulf slowdown of mideast oil. Making America energy independent will happen within a decade makes mideast oil less valuable.

Al Qaeda leadership has been decimated with over half their top leaders dead. It did not take invasions, it took drone strikes and Seal Team 6.

The president did not back down from Bashir, the WMD chemical weapons are being destroyed.

Posted by JamesChirico | Report as abusive

Gates’ comments about Obama are clearly on target as David Rohde has pointed out; Gates has a much more experienced and nuanced ‘world view’ than Obama ever will – that’s why Obama kept him on as SecDef – his experience, knowledge and leadership. Ultimately, Trust is ‘earned – not automatically granted\'; and sadly, Obama did not earn Gates trust over the course of his 1st term.

Regrettably, our President has proven himself to be either uncapable or unwilling to learn from those he has placed in senior leadership roles, and apparently is also unable to ‘influence’ those he cannot directly control – whether it be Karzai, Iran, Syria or Congress – this is the ‘root cause’ of many of his ME policy failures as is often pointed out by observers in the international community.

An inexperienced and arrogant President, coupled with a ‘my way or the highway’ mgmt approach, undermines the very leaders that the President needs to rely upon, and destroys any posibility of compromise with others. Yes, he gives great speeches; the UN speech was exemplary – but policy follow-through is sorely lacking; indifferent and muddled.
Whether we in the US like it or not, the ME will be of vital importance to our interests for a very long time. Pretending its not – “Denying Reality” as Rodhe states – doesn’t change the Truth and if you’re not actively ‘in the game’ then the results will probably not be to your liking.

Posted by willich6 | Report as abusive

I’m a ‘nam vet, who happens to think zapping our enemies out of a clear blue sky with a rocket beats 19 y.o. marines stepping on land mines,


I can’t stand Karzai, think at least half of the 3 star or better military ought to be pitched, and note that in four years Gates managed to do little in terms of getting the DOD to the point where it could pass a simple financial audit.

The military IS a mess, many of those generals and admirals CAN’T be trusted, and the idea that they get prickly when ordered by CIVILIAN AUTHORITY to do something strikes me as hysterically funny.

Emperor O screwed up, he had many, many deserving targets for reform which would have built his credibility with Americans to the point where he would have had a mandate. Instead he squandered it on a entitlement scheme that won’t survive two years after he finally gets run of of town.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

If world oil prices spiked it would promote fracking and oil sands production in the US and Canada. It would also give US factories a competitive advantage. The US is less dependent and far less price sensitive to global oil prices and this trend continues to work in the Americans favor.

In reality though, expect global prices to drop significantly this year, that is if Iran comes back online, expected increases in Central Asian production and of course if Libya ever gets it’s act together.

Posted by thelaowai | Report as abusive

AlQaida has been decimated? What an idiotic and self-serving statement that the writer wants us to swallow. If AlQaida has been decimated why are they still very active everywhere,Syria,Iraq,Somalia,Mali,Kenya  ? Only a delusional or completely partisan hack would make such a sorry and patently incorrect statement.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

Agree, disagree, love it, hate it, Obama followed his campaign promises of foreign policy.

Posted by Slammy | Report as abusive

I liked Gates, and i liked Obama, but i am no fan of Obama either. However, it strikes me as quite disingenuous for someone to keep working for an administration he does not believe is doing the right thing; and wait until he or she retires to then do a write-all about how screwed up the boss was. It gives less credibility to a man who i thought was a breath of fresh air in transparency. I guess it is time to quit believing in Santa Claus.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

It’s all about oil. For Britain, France and Europe. Not the U.S. Russia and Iran can supply the oil of Iraq, etc. Notice that with more oil independence in oil as a result of the Baaken shale oil in the Dakotas and elsewhere, we have a more flexible and wise foreign policy regarding the Middle East and Iran. It will take time, but the age of the Semitics in the Middle East is back to the B.C.E. era of the Syrians, Assyrians, Persians, etc., not settled down until the Ottomans (Turks) brought some order to the area. The author sounds like a shill for the Foreign Policy wonks who want to run the world ala “the morality of the West.”

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

Guess what, the area is already in chaos. Now comes the sequence. Certain things must happen or there will be complete anarchy. #1 ’67 borders and 2 state solution, #2 Iran must honor negotiations and comply with agreement, while swimming in the shark pool. No need to go further, because these things must happen first.

Posted by 2Borknot2B | Report as abusive

If world oil prices spiked it would promote fracking and oil sands production in the US and Canada. It would also give US factories a competitive advantage. The US is less dependent and far less price sensitive to global oil prices and this trend continues to work in the Americans favor.

In reality though, expect global prices to drop significantly this year, that is if Iran comes back online, expected increases in Central Asian production and of course if Libya ever gets it’s act together.
Posted by thelaowai

One slight flaw – you assume that oil will ALWAYS be priced in $…if it gets priced in euros/rubles/remnibi…then the US is, to be polite, *****d!

Posted by umkomazi | Report as abusive

Actually, we are moving into a stabilized oil price period. This is for a number of reasons, but primarily it is because of alternative oil production methods (fracking and tar sands), but also because of electric vehicles and alternative energy techniques. The press at the behest of many major corps and their minion politicians would have you believe otherwise, but they are just interested in serving their true constituency. The production of bakken oil and tar sands is not made possible by improvements in technology, since these methods have been around for decades, but they are rather made possible by the increased and steady price of oil which makes these more expensive production techniques economically viable. If price of oil dropped, production by more expensive techniques will drop and supply will drop and so demand will drive price up until these techniques are once again profitable. On the other side, the price of oil cannot increase too far because electric vehicles are already an economic choice for some consumers and higher gasoline prices would make that true for many more people and oil would lose huge market share. So, regardless of what happens in the middle east oil prices will remain stable, because the alternative production techniques pin the price high, but if they go too high, alternatives are priced in. Thus also our change in middle east policy. We don’t need to fight oil wars anymore.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

For all you commentators above, get the F&^%$ out of the middle east. NOBODY WANTS YOU THERE.

I m happy about one thing though. The middle east has historically been the graveyard of world superpowers. Hopefully American power will die in the Middle East sooner rather than later. Cant wait!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

I agree with the President and, in this case, Gates, and have told the President so. We have NO business being in the middle of a Sunni-Shiite war which is what this is… Iran/Assad-Syria on the one side and Saudi-UAE supported Al Qaeda led Sunnis on the other with Turkey’s Erdogan leaning towards Al Qaeda and Egypt against. As for oil, which is the sole basis for your premise, within five years the USA will be “exporting” oil and the Arabs can stuff their oil in you know where… and, with advances in technology and the green revolution, oil consumption, and oil prices, will decline shifting Arab coffers from a net plus to a sharp net negative.. They wont have the money to finance their religious wars..

Posted by Bludde | Report as abusive

Let China protect its oil delivery and soon you’ll see all the Midfle East USA haters begging the US to step in.

Posted by crod526 | Report as abusive

By the way, the price of oil is just going to continually go up. Even if we reach energy independence, it will do nothing for the price of oil. There are now too many consumers for the product. And remember, we are the largest economy. If the price of oil hurts nations we trade with, we will be the FIRST to feel it.

Our dependence on oil will never go away…….

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

The “reality” of the Middle East is that the US Military Industrial Empire (the successor to the British Empire) is collapsing and we are no longer able to control what happens there.

The “reality” will be the same as what follows the fall of ALL empires …

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

If our overriding interest is a peaceful world, as long as most of the clergy in the Middle East believe in religious war and hate the West: Our interest is to keep the Middle East weak, without long range weapons, and technologically as backward as possible. Since it costs lives and money to occupy a nation any military reaction to a strike against us should limited to killing a lot of bad guys and a lot of movers and shakers (the rich, the powerful and the clergy) that supports the bad guys with money or weapons. It fells much better and more moral to kill the movers and shakers than than their tools.

We have not long term interest in supporting one or an other party that would like to kill us.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

The Middle East has run on its own rules for thousands of years. To treat the “Rulers” in this region as if they think as does the Western mind and conform to Western views of ethics is a very mistaken policy. Junior High Obama has no experience with the Middle East, and is ignorant of their common practice of the “guilt free lie”.

Posted by Art16 | Report as abusive