Bob Gates: Obama kept the war in Afghanistan going despite having lost faith in his strategy years ago

Actual quote from Gates’s new book, writing about a meeting with O in March 2011: “As I sat there, 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.” Nearly three years later, we’re still not out despite O’s alleged disbelief. I’m caught between astonishment that any president would send troops to die for a cause he apparently thought was lost and reminding myself that … we already knew this. Right? The Democratic commitment to Afghanistan was always chiefly a function of their opposition to Iraq. They wanted out of the latter but were afraid that the left’s anti-war brand would frighten centrist voters in 2008 who wanted something more muscular in the post-9/11 age. Ramping up in Afghanistan was the answer. And before lefties object that no righteous liberal would ever dare play politics with war, here’s another Gates tidbit via WaPo:

“All too early in the [Obama] administration,” he writes, “suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials — including the president and vice president — became a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders.”

Gates offers a catalogue of various meetings, based in part on notes that he and his aides made at the time, including an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he calls “remarkable.”

He writes: “Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”

We all knew that too. Hillary’s biggest liability in the 2008 primaries was her vote for the Iraq war. There was no earthly way she was going to support escalation, however strategically justified and however hawkish her reputation generally might be. In fact, she was so eager to make amends to primary voters for that Iraq vote that she gave an interview to the NYT in 2007 detailing her own plan for the war, which would have kept some troops in the country for counterterrorism purposes but would have removed them from all peacekeeping between Sunnis and Shiites — even if ethnic cleansing resulted. I can only assume, per Gates, that that was a political calculation too. Obama, of course, wasn’t about to cede his anti-war advantage over her with lefty voters in the primaries by suddenly embracing the surge either. He didn’t need to: That’s what Afghanistan was for. He’d fight and win “the good war,” for awhile at least. And then, when he concluded that it was pointless, he’d … go on fighting it for awhile more, to spare himself the political embarrassment of having to admit that his strategy had failed. Why Gates finds any of this “surprising” given his first-hand observations about how far O was willing to go to take a position on war publicly that he didn’t hold privately, I don’t know. Could be he’s just being nice in feigning shock, but that’d be an odd show of loyalty in a tell-all that hammers Obama and the White House for all manner of sins. (He’s especially tough on them for incompetently micromanaging the military and accuses Biden in particular of having been wrong on every major foreign-policy decision of the past 40 years. That’s how you can tell that the book’s basically accurate. Click the links up top and read on.)

WaPo’s quick out of the box to frame this as a liability for Hillary in 2016 (“the criticism that has always haunted her is that everything she does is infused with politics”), and while that’s true, it’s also missing the point. We’ve got a former secretary of defense accusing the commander-in-chief of pursuing a deadly, costly war in Afghanistan that he doesn’t really believe in. Let’s hear more from both parties about that, please. While we wait, your exit question via my esteemed colleague: