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Opinion: Gates’ Memoirs and America’s Gorbachev | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The newly released book authored by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates titled “Duty” is seen for sale at the Books and Books store on January 14, 2014 in Coral Gables, Florida. (AFP/Joe Raedle)

There are many senior US officials who have disagreed with President Barack Obama, whether in his first or second administration. There are even more former officials who disagree wit him. But what is most interest now is former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to break his silence and come out and talk bitterly about his two years as Obama’s defense secretary.

Gates’s has published his memoirs, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, which has stirred controversy over the past weeks as extracts appear in the English and Arabic media. Gates’s book has garnered the attention it deserved, including from the White House, which promptly responded to some of his claims.

Gates has been openly critical of the way that Obama directed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He wrote that Obama had expressed doubts about the military strategy in Afghanistan, adding that he seemed convinced it would fail.

Commenting on the book, the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward said: “In Gates’s highly emotional account, Obama remains uncomfortable with the inherited wars and distrustful of the military that is providing him options.”

In his book, Gates also writes: “Hillary [Clinton] told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political, because she was facing him in the Iowa [Democratic presidential] 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.”

Many analysts and writers have criticized Obama’s decisions and policies, but this is the first time that a senior US official has criticized the president in such detail. Away from criticizing or praising a sitting president, the stories and anecdotes revealed by Gates shed light on the way Obama thinks. He is depicted as an indecisive president with strong doubts even about his own military, while his opposition to a troop surge in Iraq prior to his presidency was not based on strategic or military thinking, but political and electoral considerations.

The problem then is that he held firm to this position after he became president and was never comfortable with the wars that he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush. What can we say
about the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military force in the world being overcome by doubts and concerns?

The book did not allude to the next stage, namely Obama’s policies following the Arab Spring, particularly US policies on Syria and Iran, which have been criticized by many politicians and observers in America and elsewhere.

Gates, from the position of a senior official who was part of the administration and the decision-making process, has the ability to see and recognize the mistakes of Obama’s administration from within, providing details that are simply not available to many observers.

In December, David Ignatius published an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he expressed fears that Obama may turn out to be the Mikhail Gorbachev of America. He discussed a number of issues in this op-ed, in a comparison that is worthy of consideration. Obama and Gorbachev share a number of qualities, such as the fact that both sought to change their countries’ traditional image. This was an old and deep-rooted image in the case of Gorbachev, and a modern and contemporary one in the case of Obama. They tried to lead their respective countries towards a new horizon.

However, not everything which drove Gorbachev to perestroika was old; there were some current and modern events which prompted Gorbachev to attempt these reforms. Similarly, not everything that has compelled Obama to do what he has done can be traced back to the Bush administration; there were historic events and policies that prompted Obama to follow a similar tack.

There is something else that Obama and Gorbachev share: Both have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Gorbachev won his after he had completed his mission, whereas Obama won it before he had accomplished anything.

Gorbachev ended an old totalitarian regime in order to build a new but less influential Russia, which was able to take its natural place. This is something that Vladimir Putin is today trying to strengthen with all his own political stances.

Obama, however, took command of a leading, successful and powerful state, and endeavored to use soft power in order to withdraw, retreat and go into isolation.

Those observing the scene today can clearly read how America’s role is declining while Russia’s is expanding, not only in the Middle East, but across the entire world. Russia, which presents itself as a protector of military dictatorships, succeeds in protecting Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and in supporting the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and before this, it helped preserve the regime in North Korea, despite all its troubles. It is also moving strongly in Ukraine and in Eastern Europe in general.

The world wars and the Cold War have ended, but today’s world sees cold and hot wars, and it is divided and fragmented. The Middle East looks volatile and its conflicts and turbulences liable to last for decades, and yet, the American vision towards the region remains clouded.

A few writers, including myself, wrote articles at the start of the Syrian crisis warning that hesitation from America and the West would create a new center for terrorism and religious violence in Syria, and that its evil would ultimately spread to affect those ditherers far away in the Western world.

FBI director James B. Comey last week expressed Washington’s fears that Al-Qaeda is seeking to recruit and train American citizens to carry out attacks when they return from Syria.

The political and cultural debate that has been raging for years in the West about terrorism is a rich debate, but seems to be limited and biased when it touches the issue of Sunnis and Shi’ites and state-sponsored terrorism in the regime.

While focusing on Sunni terrorism, Shi’ite terrorism is ignored, despite the fact that Iran’s involvement in both is great. If this is obvious in Shi’ite terrorism, it is no less obvious in Sunni terrorism.