Much of the media is adopting Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's description of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' forthcoming memoir as a damning critique of President Obama -- a narrative undermined by Woodward's own description of the book's contents.
Gates' memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, will be released January 14. On January 7, both The Washington Post and The New York Times reported on the contents of the book based on copies they had received prior to publication. Those articles have been the source for a firestorm of coverage on cable and broadcast television, with much of the media adopting Woodward's portrayal of the book as a harsh and nearly unprecedented attack on the president.
According to the anecdotes relayed by the Times and the Post, Gates details his frustration with the White House's civilian national security staff, which he believes took on responsibility that should have been the prerogative of the Defense Department and the military. And he at times offers specific criticisms of President Obama's actions. But Woodward's portrayal of the book, which has been adopted by the rest of the media, depicting it as a bombshell attack on the president simply does not follow from the facts at hand.
Under the headline “Robert Gates, former defense secretary, offers harsh critique of Obama's leadership in 'Duty,'” Woodward begins his article by writing that Gates “unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama's leadership” and offers “one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat”:
In a new memoir, former defense secretary Robert Gates unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama's leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war, writing that by early 2010 he had concluded the president “doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out.”
Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”
Woodward also writes that “It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”
Cable and network news programs - whose reporters apparently have not read the book themselves -- are adopting Woodward's frame of the book as an attack on the president.
But elsewhere in his article, Woodward undermines this narrative by pointing out that Gates writes that all of Obama's Afghanistan decisions were correct, as The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner notes. Rather than consider the possibility that he is wrong to present Gates' book as a “harsh critique” of Obama, Woodward suggests that Gates is contradicting himself:
Gates's severe criticism is even more surprising -- some might say contradictory -- because toward the end of "Duty," he says of Obama's chief Afghanistan policies, “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.” That particular view is not a universal one; like much of the debate about the best path to take in Afghanistan, there is disagreement on how well the surge strategy worked, including among military officials.
Woodward also writes that Gates “writes about Obama with an ambivalence that he does not resolve, praising him as 'a man of personal integrity' even as he faults his leadership.”
While New York Times reporter Thom Shanker describes many of the same anecdotes in his own article on the book, his piece does not depict it as an attack on Obama. His piece, headlined “Bipartisan Critic Turns His Gaze Toward Obama,” begins with the same discussion of Obama's reported skepticism about the war in Afghanistan, but does not adopt the same tone as Woodward:
After ordering a troop increase in Afghanistan, President Obama eventually lost faith in the strategy, his doubts fed by White House advisers who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing, according to his former defense secretary Robert M. Gates.
In a new memoir, Mr. Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served for two years under Mr. Obama, praises the president as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats.” But Mr. Gates says that by 2011, Mr. Obama began criticizing -- sometimes emotionally -- the way his policy in Afghanistan was playing out.
The Times also reveals an anecdote from the book that was absent from the Post's report and further undermines Woodward's narrative, reporting:
Mr. Gates acknowledges that he initially opposed sending Special Operations forces to attack a housing compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. Mr. Gates writes that Mr. Obama's approval for the Navy SEAL mission, despite strong doubts that Bin Laden was even there, was “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”
In 2013 Woodward repeatedly came under fire for bizarre and overhyped criticisms of President Obama. Notably, Woodward claimed in February that he had been threatened by a White House official. That story fell apart after the email Woodward had cited as an attempt at intimidation was published.