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No surprise, Sherlock: Of course Obama wanted to get out of Afghanistan

January 7, 2014, at 8:06 PM

“And I must tell you...when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more — we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged."

Prescient remarks from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, whose soon-to-be published memoir has landed with a predictable bang. There are two strings I want to pull. One: Why did Gates write the book for release during the administration? And two: What do his observations tell us about the man who now holds executive power and the woman, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who aspires to it?

On the first: I'm not surprised Gates allowed his publisher to release the book with two full years left in the Obama administration. It will be more influential now; the gestation time for major Washington memoirs has sped up along with the rest of the city. Does Gates have an obligation to be silent until Obama finishes his term? What degree of loyalty is Obama owed? Not a whole lot. It may not be classy to criticize the president, but unless the publication of a memoir would really harm the president's ability to function, I'm not sure why market forces wouldn't and shouldn't trump custom.

The worst that can be said of Gates is that he either lacks or disregards a sense of old-world propriety. Oh, well. Obama's a big boy. He can handle it. And if Gates intends for his book to matter, to be something more than a bank account padder, publishing it now is a decent decision.

So what of the content? I really need to read the full book to appreciate the context of statements like: "He doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

Well, yes, that's exactly the strategy, one that Obama believes in, and has prosecuted quite effectively, if the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are indicators. During his campaign, Obama came to see "winning" in Afghanistan as merely the eradication of al Qaeda from a position of influence. He saw the war there as a self-perpetuating cycle of blood: Troops led to violence, which led to more troops, which weakened America's position.

He did not believe that Afghanistan could be stabilized; he hoped, yes — but the options he had were constrained by decisions made well before he became president. He inherited a war that had no objectively viable endgame. So he chose smaller goals, which were based on his appraisal of what he could do that would increase, relative to the present, American national security interests. Stabilizing Afghanistan, transitioning to an elected government, supporting civil society — these were noble, ancillary, obviously non-resourced objectives. The whole project of getting into these wars and staying, leaving a big American footprint — that's what Obama ran against. He ran to get out of that.

What was up for debate was the mechanism of withdrawal, or how long it would take. Obama's principle priorities were two: The safety of redeploying American troops and ensuring that al Qaeda could not be reconstituted in the region.

Why Gates should be surprised by this is difficult to tell from the excerpts. He is smart enough to have interpreted Obama's campaign rhetoric realistically. He is also, funnily enough, convinced that Obama made the right calls.

Memoirs, and memory, are curious things.

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