By Jeremy Herb and Kristina Wong - 01/07/14 06:21 PM EST
President Obama doubted his own troop-surge strategy in Afghanistan would work; Vice President Biden got nearly every security issue wrong for 40 years; and Hillary Clinton opposed President Bush's Iraq surge to help her presidential bid. These are among the blockbuster allegations detonated Tuesday by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Writing in a memoir due out next week, Gates says that Obama was “skeptical if not outright convinced" his Afghan surge would fail.
He says former Secretary of State Clinton opposed the surge in Iraq launched by President George W. Bush for political reasons, because it would have been difficult to support during a presidential primary battle in 2008 with then-Sen. Obama. The president himself "vaguely" conceded that his own opposition to the Iraq surge was based in politics, which Gates said he found both surprising and dismaying.
The revelations, included in the forthcoming Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, according to several reports based on early copies of the book, arrive as Obama comes under separate criticism from Capitol Hill Republicans that his administration should be doing more to arm and train an Iraqi military battling a resurgent al Qaeda.
“The president has failed miserably in explaining the threats we face, and Secretary Kerry was completely disappointing when he said this is an Iraqi problem,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday.
Combined, the criticisms were a one-two punch to an administration that has been focused on domestic policy in the new year.
While the administration faces tough decisions on what to do in Iraq, the criticism from Gates over Afghanistan stung more. Not only is it coming from a first-term insider trusted by Obama, it is on an issue closely tied to the president and his legacy.
The White House immediately rebuffed the searing criticism of Biden in a statement from National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden
"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," she said. “President Obama relies on his good counsel every day.”
On Afghanistan, Hayden said that differences within the administration had been widely reported over the years, "and it is well known that the president has been committed to achieving the mission of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, while also ensuring that we have a clear plan for winding down the war, which will end this year."
“The president deeply appreciates Bob Gates' service as Secretary of Defense and his life,” the statement continued. “As has always been the case, the president welcomes differences of view among his national security team, which broaden his options and enhance our policies.”
Obama opposed the war in Iraq and argued in his 2008 campaign that Bush should have been focused on Afghanistan. He backed a surge in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan during his first year in office, and the administration is currently in the midst of negotiating a security agreement with the Afghans for a long-term U.S. presence.
Gates wrote that by early 2010, however, he had concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
“I never doubted Obama’s support for the troops, only his support for their mission,” Gates wrote, according to a report in the Washington Post.
In recent weeks, the White House has threatened to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, if Afghan President Hamid Karzai does not sign the bilateral security agreement. The administration wants to keep 8,000-10,000 troops in Afghanistan to train Afghan soldiers.
The “zero option” that is on the table in Afghanistan would follow the path U.S. forces took in Iraq, when the U.S. military withdrew completely in 2011, after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to grant U.S. troops immunity.
Republicans have seized on the Iraq withdrawal as reason to blame for the current violence in Iraq; al Qaeda affiliates retook Fallujah, one of the deadliest battlegrounds during the Iraq War.
“[Obama] oversold before 2012 election the actual state that al Qaeda was in, and now it’s clearly obvious to everyone they’re on the rise and not on the run,” Graham said.
But the White House has forcefully pushed back against those criticisms, all but daring Republicans to come out in support of putting U.S. troops back in Iraq.
“I don't think I've heard members of Congress suggest this, but if members were suggesting that there should be American troops fighting and dying in Fallujah today, they should say so. The president doesn't believe that,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
No Republicans have suggested U.S. troops should return to Iraq, but they argue Obama should have never allowed all U.S. forces to leave in 2011, which they say created a power vacuum.
“Because Obama wanted out, he got out,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of Obama’s most vocal foreign policy critics.
McCain said the U.S. needs to quickly ramp up its military support to the Iraqis.
“They need intelligence capabilities; they need more air capabilities; they need more planning capabilities, but most of all, they need Maliki [a Shia] to reach out to the Sunnis and try to have some kind of reconciliation,” McCain said.
“If we had stayed, there would have been that reconciliation. Instead, we left, and things went to hell in a hand basket, just as I predicted it would.”
Obama’s former ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, also said he disagreed with Kerry’s statement that al Qaeda's reemergence in Iraq was “not our fight.”
“Given the importance of Iraq and given the association of the United States with Iraq, in particular Fallujah, this is our fight,” Jeffrey, who served as ambassador from 2010-2012, said in an interview with The Hill.
U.S. military leaders say the resurgence of al Qaeda groups in Iraq is a serious issue and has implications throughout the conflicts in the Middle East.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, who served as commanding general of U.S. and NATO forces in Iraq from 2008-2010, said it was important for the United States to continue working with the Iraqi army on counterinsurgency and to stay politically involved.
In a speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday, Odierno said this “was certainly not” the time to deploy U.S. troops to Iraq, but the U.S. had to “wait and see if it becomes part of our national security interest to put people on the ground."
He said the events in Iraq are part of a larger development across the region, of a Sunni-Shiite struggle that's also taking place in Syria and Lebanon, allowing al Qaeda and other non-state actors to exploit instability.
“The biggest threat to U.S. national security is that this ungoverned territory becomes areas where we have terrorist organizations become dominant and try to export their terrorism outside the Middle East,” Odierno said.
Julian Pecquet and Rebecca Shabad contributed.