Borrowing the famous quip about Richard Wagner's music, Gates said Obama's foreign policy "is not as bad as it sounds. It's the way it comes out that diminishes its effectiveness." "The way things get done communicates reluctance to assert American power," Gates explained in an interview Wednesday. "They often end up in the right place, but a day late and a dollar short. The decisions are made seriatim. It presents an image that he's being dragged kicking and screaming to each new stage, and it dilutes the implementation of what he's done."
Looking back, it was still one of President Obama's most striking personnel moves. Not long after the 2008 election, then-President-Elect Obama decided he wanted Robert Gates, George W. Bush's Defense Secretary, to remain on the job. For all of the dramatic differences between the two presidents, Obama saw Gates as a competent, steady hand at the Pentagon, so there was no need to replace him -- even if that meant having a Republican serving in a top cabinet post in a Democratic administration.
Over the course of two-and-a-half years, Obama and Gates didn't always see eye to eye, though there was never any evidence of real animosity, and if their differences were serious, their partnership never would have lasted as long as it did. Years later, Gates continues to reflect on his service, and he made some notable comments to the Washington Post's David Ignatius the other day.
Some of Gates' concerns are institutional -- he thinks the National Security Council's staff is too large and too prone to micromanagement -- but the key point of contention is his belief that President Obama has seemed reluctant to use military force.
I suspect many of the White House's critics on the left would find this odd, given that Obama's military offenses in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria -- and this list doesn't include drone strikes in a variety of additional theaters. But note, Gates didn't say Obama hasn't used force, only that he believes Obama should have demonstrated a "clearer desire to show we can act with force" when necessary.
In other words, Gates is making an argument about impressions and perceptions. This president, the argument goes, hasn't seemed eager to use force.
The former Pentagon chief may have intended this as mild criticism, but some may end up seeing this as unintentional praise.
Look, I get the underlying point of all this. Gates' concerns have been voiced by many for nearly eight years now: this president should saber rattle more. He should thump his chest for all the world to see. Obama should display, with varying degrees of subtlety, an eagerness to use the globe's most potent fighting force.
But reluctance to launch foreign military offenses is a feature of Obama's policy, not a bug. Decisions about using force are supposed to be hard and should be made after great care and deliberation. (A friend of mine wrote a book on the subject.)
If Gates' entire line of criticism is that President Obama is slow to use force, but his policies tend to "end up in the right place," I imagine most of the folks in the West Wing, including the president himself, would see this as praise.
David Ignatius' column concluded: "Gates offered a last piece of advice: Because of perceptions that Obama has been reluctant to use power, 'some new president could come in without a deft touch and overreact, to reduce this impression.... My worry is that the next president will overcorrect.'"
Perhaps, but what if Obama's "impression" is the right one, and there's nothing really to "correct" at all?