During World War II, President Harry Truman made the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, and he said he never had any regrets. When an anguished J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who headed the project to build the bomb, told him, “I have blood on my hands,” Truman responded, “Never mind, it’ll all come out in the wash.”
Truman is famous for his decisiveness, which is a valuable quality in a president. But the impulse to go through extensive deliberation before making life-and-death choices is also a valuable quality. So is the capacity to see the flaws not only in the plans you reject but also in those you adopt. Truman may not have had those traits, but according to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Barack Obama does.
In his new memoir, which hits bookstores Tuesday, Gates offers ammo to the president’s critics. On military matters, Obama, he writes, lacked the “passion” he had seen in President George W. Bush, who originally appointed Gates to head the Pentagon. Obama and those around him often exhibited “suspicion and distrust of senior military officers.”
He also failed to mobilize public support for his troop buildup in Afghanistan. “When soldiers put their lives on the line,” writes Gates, “they need to know that the commander in chief who sent them in harm’s way believes in their mission. President Obama never did that.”
Perhaps this reluctance reflected Obama’s own doubts about his course, since Gates says Obama was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail.”
Those comments, however, are not the whole story. Gates, who had served under seven other presidents, says when it came to the important policy choices about Afghanistan, Obama “was right in each of these decisions.” His approval of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”
The picture that emerges of Obama is not all that surprising. He is careful, methodical and unemotional in weighing his choices. He is comfortable with complexity. He often fails to rein in his political advisers and young aides, who poke their noses where they don’t belong. He didn’t regard a successful outcome in either Afghanistan or Iraq as a necessity or a high priority.
It may be argued that anything worth doing is worth doing with absolute certitude. Bush, says Gates, “had no second thoughts about Iraq, including our decision to invade.” That attitude was an asset when it came time to decide on a military surge in 2007 — which, against most predictions, turned the tide against the insurgency.
Still, given the botched aftermath of the 2003 invasion, some reassessment might have served Bush and the country well, if only to avoid future mistakes. As for Afghanistan, Bush’s bluff confidence led him into a different trap: a policy that, in Gates’ view, was “embarrassingly ambitious” and “historically naive.”
Obama has made his share of mistakes — notably, coupling the buildup in Afghanistan with a promise to withdraw by the end of 2014, letting our enemies know how long they need to hold out. He threatened stern action against Syria if the government used chemical weapons, only to renege. Sometimes, he reverses course without warning. Sometimes his public deliberation and delay come off as indecisiveness.
Gates’ assessment of Obama is more balanced, more nuanced, than one might have expected from first reports.
After using air power to help Libyan rebels overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, Obama might have boasted that he knew all along it would work, with no loss of American lives. Instead, he confided to Gates that the decision “had been a 51-49 call.”
He pulled the trigger in spite of his doubts.
A president may have an easy time acting with dispatch and resolve when he’s sure he’s right. The challenge is to act even when he’s not.