So What If Gates Disagreed With Obama?

It's not earth shattering that the defense secretary and the president disagreed from time to time.

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Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and President Barack Obama.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and President Barack Obama.

Is former Defense Secretary Bob Gates a traitor or a hero for penning a book critical of President Obama while the commander-in-chief is still in office?

As when that question was asked about Edward Snowden, who brought some important government surveillance activities to light while breaking the law and revealing other things that probably ought to have stayed secret, the answer is not so black-and-white. And the question itself is a little unfair to Gates, who has argued, rightly, that the media response to his book has been overblown and has mischaracterized what he wrote. Gates told NBC:

The book has sort of been hijacked by people along the political spectrum to serve their own purposes.

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Well, if there is naivete here, it's partly displayed by Gates, who surely must know by now that any political book is going to be scoured for comments or anecdotes that criticize, or appear to criticize, the president or members of Congress. Yet his annoyance over the media reaction is not only understandable but consistent with some of the observations he made in his book about how Washington works. Gates wrote about a dysfunctional, headline-grabbing Congress, where "hearings" on public policy are more about scoring political points than about finding answers to shape legislation. And he's absolutely right. Is it any surprise that his book would be used, as Gates complained, as a political weapon?

And there's naivete on the part of those who have gleefully pointed to the anecdotes about disagreements or personality clashes between the defense secretary and the president. First, it would be a little alarming if there wasn't any disagreement – all that means is that the president has chosen a coterie of sycophants too afraid to challenge the big boss. And it's particularly no surprise that a defense secretary, any defense secretary, would be at odds with a civilian president, especially one who has not served in the military. It has nothing to do with the commitment to the troops – and Gates has been clear he does not question Obama's respect for the troops. It has to do with culture.

In the military, you're not supposed to question your superiors (which may be why Gates seethed with frustration at times and kept it to himself). That makes sense; the moment when a decision must be made in battle is not the time for a town meeting and a showing of hands. In the media, the whole point is to question authority, all the time – and the media would not be doing its job if it did not behave that way. And in the White House, public and political considerations must be taken into account, even when those considerations are trumped by what elected officials and their advisers decide is better public policy.

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Gates said Obama had no "passion" for the war in Afghanistan, and that he did not see it as his war. Well, it wasn't his war. And the war was unpopular. Further, Obama is not a demonstrably passionate man. So what? Gates is a military man, and he was appropriately acting as such. He's given a mission and he does it. His job, once the mission is determined, is not to second-guess it or think about how it's playing with the public. That's the president's job. It's natural that these two approaches would produce some clashes. And again, the question is: so what?

Maybe Gates should have waited to write his book, as some lawmakers have suggested. But if that's true, it's only because our hyper-partisan culture has made it impossible for any book mentioning the president to be evaluated in any way other than political – even if that was not the intent of the author. Gates was a dedicated public servant and he doesn't suggest Obama is not also a dedicated public servant. They had different personalities and different perspectives. Gates, as dictated by his job description, followed the orders of the president even when he might have been irritated by the process or in disagreement with the president or his advisers. There's nothing scandalous in that.

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