Critical Gates memoir rocks Obama administration

United States (US) President Barack Obama (right) and then outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates salute troops during the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute to honour Mr Gates on June 30, 2011 at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The White House
United States (US) President Barack Obama (right) and then outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates salute troops during the Armed Forces Farewell Tribute to honour Mr Gates on June 30, 2011 at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The White House on Wednesday fought back against former Pentagon chief Gates's blunt criticism of President Obama's war leadership and damning of Vice President Joe Biden.  -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The White House on Wednesday fought back against former Pentagon chief Robert Gates's blunt criticism of President Barack Obama's war leadership and damning of Vice President Joe Biden.

Mr Gates, who served six presidents in senior national security jobs, sent political shockwaves through Washington with his unsparing assessments of the administration in his new book.

Among other accusations, the Republican accused Mr Biden of being wrong about every big foreign policy issue for decades and alleged Mr Obama lost faith in his own troop surge strategy for the Afghan war.

The White House insisted that Mr Obama had expected and welcomed constructive dissent in his foreign policy team after picking a so-called "team of rivals" in his first term cabinet.

And in a rare move, press photographers were invited into Mr Obama's weekly lunch with Mr Biden in the private dining room off the Oval Office, in an apparent show of unity.

The defense of Mr Biden also left the impression that White House aides are not averse to for the focus to be trained on the vice president, rather than Mr Obama's credentials as commander-in-chief.

"As a senator and as the vice president, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

"He has been an excellent counselor and adviser to the president for the past five years."

"He's played a key role in every major national security and foreign policy debate and policy discussion in this administration." Tell-all memoirs by former administration officials looking to gild their retirement and bolster their legacies are nothing new - and uniformly infuriate presidents, whichever party runs the White House.

But the Gates bombshell was remarkable because of the pedigree of the former defense secretary and CIA chief, his long experience as a confidant of presidents, and his reputation for unruffled integrity.

So it is more difficult for the White House to write off the book - Duty: Memoirs Of A Secretary Of War - due to be published on January 14, as typical score settling by a holdover from the George W. Bush administration who was kept on by Mr Obama.

In the most damaging revelations, Mr Gates suggested Mr Obama soured on his own troop surge strategy in Afghanistan and lost confidence in General David Petraeus and other military brass he picked to lead it.

Mr Obama "can't stand (Afghan president Hamid) 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," Mr Gates wrote, according to the Washington Post.

Mr Gates also slams White House aides for obsessive attempts to control US national security and foreign policy to the detriment of the State Department and the Pentagon, and excerpts from his book reek of a deep distaste for Washington and its political games.

In comments which could reverberate in the 2016 presidential campaign, he says former secretary of state Hillary Clinton told Obama she only opposed a troop surge strategy in Iraq for political reasons during the heat of their primary battle.

The political gang that Mr Gates so disdained was out in the president's defense on Wednesday.

"He always indicated he had a good working relationship with the president," David Axelrod, a former top Obama aide who remains close to the president, told NBC.

Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley said on CBS that Gates's memoir represented a "disservice" while the administration was still fighting the Afghan war.

Mr Gates' stature gives the allegations extra currency and they are likely to linger in the political discourse in Washington for years, and in histories that will shape Obama's legacy.

While Mr Gates said plenty of positive things about Mr Obama - calling him a man of "integrity" and praising him for gutsy decision to order a raid to kill Osama bin Laden - and Mr Clinton - who he sees as smart, and a great ambassador for America abroad - it is the criticisms that will likely be remembered.

The book also offered ammunition for critics of Mr Obama's foreign policy record.

Republican Senator John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election to Mr Obama said he had known about his rival's antipathy to the Afghan war before Gates spilled the beans.

"It was obvious. For anybody who observed their activities, it didn't come as a surprise," Mr McCain said. "What's new is how revealing Gates's statements are."