Will Gates' memoir be a political Scud -- or a dud?

When the first excerpts of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ new memoir My Duty emerged before its January 14 release date, they seemed calculated to do maximum damage to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Without a doubt, the quotes released had significant sensational value — accusing Obama of sending more troops to a war he didn’t think he could win, and Clinton of admitting that nothing nore than baldfaced politics lie in her opposition to the 2007 surge that salvaged — for a time, anyway — western Iraq. Those quotes did get people talking, but will the damage last, or does this just confirm long-embraced narratives?

In my column for The Fiscal Times, I predict that nothing much will come of these releases, especially the context in which Gates frames them in the book:

The decision in December 2009 to increase force strength by adding 30,000 combat troops to the theater followed from Obama’s campaign pledge to put the “distraction” of Iraq behind the US and focus on the legitimate front of the war on terror. However, in private discussions, Gates writes that Obama was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” even while ordering the troops into combat.

Needless to say, this feeds into a lot of pre-existing opinions of President Obama. Conservatives, especially those in favor of a robust forward military strategy, never believed that Obama was in it for victory. In fact, many pointed out at the time that the President never once included the word “victory” in his speech announcing the escalation. As I wrote at the time:

The only sense of real mission I get from this speech is that we’re going to send 30,000 more troops now so we can start evacuating all of them in the summer of 2011.  It sounds like a slow-motion Dunkirk, and it recalls what Winston Churchill had to say after being congratulated for rescuing the entire British Army and a good portion of the French Army in 1940 from that massive cross-Channel evacuation: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”  And apparently Obama agrees, since he didn’t bother to talk about victory at all, but instead treated it as a massive responsibility that he reluctantly will fulfill.

As revelations go, this is useful for confirmation, but not exactly a surprise.

Likewise, the same is true about Hillary’s political calculations on the surge. Everyone at the time knew that had been nothing but a way to cozy up to the Left, which castigated her for supporting the war in Iraq. The Clintons have few (if any) political principles that don’t begin with what’s good for the Clintons — and everyone has known this for decades now.  Plus, Gates goes out of his way to note that he agreed with all of Obama’s decisions on Afghanistan, and that Hillary is “smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.” Admissions on these points may be helpful, but they’re not going to change minds at this late date on either figure.

Clearly there is going to be plenty of nuance from the book, and opponents of Obama and Clinton who climb aboard these few excerpts to proclaim Gates the ur-text of Hillary’s disqualifications for office may end up having their knees cut out from underneath them when the rest of the book appears next week.

Or perhaps even before. Ron Fournier looks at the Obama revelation from another angle, and asks why people would be unhappy that a President elected on the basis of anti-war sentiment would deploy skepticism about what his generals told him:

Then remember why Obama was elected in 2008. He reflected the nation’s ambivalence toward war, promising to pull out of Iraq and wean Afghanistan from U.S. dependence. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, waged war on Iraq under false pretenses and with a lack of skepticism toward neoconservatives in his war Cabinet, led by Vice President Dick Cheney. Initially, anyway, he deferred to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his generals. Famously calling himself “The Decider,” Bush rarely revisited a decision, and earned a reputation for stubbornness.

When the president finally fired Rumsfeld and distanced himself from Cheney, it was too late; the public’s opinion of the war and of the president had plummeted.

It’s with that context people will read Gates’s description of a pivotal meeting in the Situation Room in March 2011, called to discuss the Afghan withdrawal timetable. A frustrated Obama opened by expressing doubts about Gen. David Patraeus, his commander in Afghanistan, and questioning whether he could do business with the Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai.

“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,” Gates wrote. The only troubling thing about this assessment is Obama’s apparent lack of ownership—and it rings true, given his penchant for ducking responsibility during his first five years in office.

But doubts about an ally and his commanders? We need more of that. A lack of skepticism, curiosity, and reflection sunk Bush. Further back, who knows how many lives would have been saved during the Vietnam War had President Johnson acted on his private doubts, most of which didn’t come to light until after he left office. Abraham Lincoln ran through a series of generals until he found one he could trust to win the Civil War, Ulysses Grant.

Plus, in the end Obama went along with the generals on the escalation in December 2009, even if he was skeptical of the prospects for success and backing away from the notion of overall victory.

On Hillary, The Week’s Jon Terbush thinks this will be a nine-day wonder, too:

Yes, Clinton has often been accused of drifting with the political winds. But I’m skeptical that anyone in 2016 will truly care about — let alone remember — one line about years-old events in a score-settling memoir released during the doldrums of early 2014.

Voters care far more about the economy, health care, and a whole host of other issues than they do about all of America’s foreign entanglements combined, per a recent Associated Press survey. Only 14 percent of respondents want the government to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan this year — half the number who want immigration front and center — and that number will only drop as the wars further wind down.

Plus, as Cillizza concedes, politicians make this sort of calculation all the time. The presidential primaries for both parties are a months-long process of candidates courting the base before shifting back to the center for the general election. Progressive Democratic primary voters and moderate general election voters may not love this new detail about Clinton, but will they really abandon her in droves over a rather run-of-the-mill bit of political cravenness? …

So who might care about Clinton appearing to be no more than an M.C. Escher sketch of political calculations? Republicans — three-fourths of whom already don’t like Clinton and were never going to vote for her anyway.

I’m inclined to agree even though I do think that revelation is shameful, or should be. All it will do is reinforce existing narratives, not change any minds. Hillary’s actions on Benghazi will have — and should have — a lot more significance on her 2016 prospects.

I predict that Gates’ memoir will sell lots of copies, but will mainly influence the historical take on the Obama administration rather than impact politics much in the near term. Call this a dud rather than a Scud in those terms.