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Obama comments on a less-than-flattering book by his former defense secretary

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Barack Obama and his former defense secretary appear determined not to allow a less-than-flattering memoir get in the way of cordial relations.

In his first public comments about the insider account of Robert Gates, the president praised his former defense secretary.

"During his tenure here, Secretary Gates was an outstanding secretary of defense, a good friend of mine, and I'll always be grateful for his service," Obama said Monday.

But what about all the criticisms in the book? That Obama didn't believe in his own Afghanistan strategy, that he hated President Hamid Karzai, that political calculations too often interfered in military decisions, that White House staffers were controlling and unprofessional, and that Vice-President Joe Biden was chronically wrong on every major foreign-policy issue of his career.

The president didn't address any of those directly.

But he did appear to refer to a more flattering element in Gates' book, "Duty." The book credits him with ultimately choosing the right course of action in 2009 when, against Biden's advice, he opted for a troop surge of 30,000 more soldiers in Afghanistan.

"What's important is that we got the policy right, but this is hard and it always has been. Whenever you've got men and women that you're sending into harm's way, after having already made enormous investments of blood and treasure in another country, part of your job as commander-in-chief is to sweat the details on it," Obama said during a photo op with Spain's prime minister Monday.

"War is never easy."

Meanwhile, Gates also complimented the president.

As he launched a round of media interviews Monday to promote his book, he expressed frustration that in the hyper-partisan Washington environment people are seizing select snippets of the tome to bash Obama with them.

"(I'm) not really surprised, but, you know, in a way disappointed that the book has sort of been hijacked by people along the political spectrum to serve their own purposes, taking quotes out of context and so on. And it's sort of part of the political warfare in Washington that I decry in the book," said Gates, who was even more scathing in his criticism of Congress.

"I make clear that I have a lot of respect for both President Bush and President Obama. And just like on Afghanistan, I think that what has been lost in the news media is that I actually agreed with virtually every decision President Obama made on Afghanistan."

That decision-making process was far from smooth, as Gates' book points out.

One spectacular snippet that has attracted less attention than others describes how Obama was livid at his military brass for undermining his own civilian leadership.

As the White House searched for an Afghan policy in the months after Obama took office, someone leaked to the media a military assessment that only one possible option — a troop surge — would prevent mission failure.

Then the author of that assessment, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, rubbed salt in the wound. While answering questions from a UK audience, he publicly dismissed the course of action that was being championed by Biden.

The vice-president was pushing for a redeployment of troops away from more-populated areas toward the Pakistani border region, a notable hub for militants and terrorist training. McChrystal mockingly, and publicly, suggested such a policy would lead to "Chaosistan."

Obama was incensed.

"'Is it a lack of respect for me?' Obama asked us," according to Gates' book.

"'Are (they) trying to box me in? I've tried to create an environment where all points of view can be expressed and have a robust debate. I'm prepared to devote any amount of time to it — however many hours or days. What is wrong? Is it the process? Are they suspicious of my politics? Do they resent that I never served in the military? Do they think because I'm young that I don't see what they're doing?'"

In an interview with National Public Radio that aired Monday, Gates said: "I think he was trying to figure out why the military was trying to put him in this position, trying to box him in."

As for the part of the book that's garnered the most attention, Gates stressed that Obama's doubts about the Afghan approach came eventually, over time — not while he was introducing a policy that put more troops in harm's way.

The former defense secretary, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served numerous presidents, has defended his decision to release the book now while Obama is still in office.

The White House, for its part, has not made an issue of the timing — at least not in any public remarks.

The president even called Gates last weekend to wish him a speedy recovery after he'd slipped on a rug at home and fractured a vertebra. He appeared Monday in media interviews wearing a neck brace.

Obama's spokesman said Monday that what matters is the prime U.S. objective — "disrupt, dismantle and ultimately to defeat core al-Qaida" in the region — is progressing.

As for creating a stable, Western-style democracy, even the most stalwart boosters of the Afghan mission are struggling to muster up much enthusiasm to argue that's been achieved.

Just last week, Karzai freed 72 prisoners seen as a threat by the U.S. He has also refused, so far, to sign a bilateral deal to keep some foreign troops in Afghanistan after this year. The Afghan president wants prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay and an end to raids on homes.

In the book, Gates says the U.S. even tried to undermine Karzai's election chances. He called it a "clumsy and failed putsch" that he never agreed with.

One analyst says the book is like a Rorschach test — people can read into it whatever they want.

As for the finger-pointing, according to Stephen Saideman, it's like an inversion of the old adage about success having 1,000 fathers.

"Everybody's going to be pointing their fingers at everybody else (over Afghanistan) — and rightfully so. There's plenty of blame to go around," said Saideman, the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Ottawa's Carleton University and author of the book, "NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone."

Gates deserves some of that blame, he said, because he should have sent U.S. troops in greater numbers to Kandahar province, not Helmand.

"I'm not sure that Gates did his job... The first surge of troops went to the wrong spot," Saideman said.

As for the president's anger at the military, Saideman said, the army had no business trying to exert political pressure on a democratically elected government.

"The military should provide the president with the best advice they can," he said, "and they shouldn't try to game him."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version referred to Spain's president instead of prime minister

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/the-canadian-press/140113/obama-comments-less-flattering-book-his-former-defense-secre