As a reporter, I enjoy watching the president’s annual State of the Union speech before Congress. The event blends political circus and public policy seminar. By tradition, just moments before the president enters the packed House chamber, his cabinet files in, sits in the front row and leads the applause.
For the first several years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sat in the front row and reacted publically to his State of the Union speeches. As I observed them from my press gallery seat in the balcony, I sometimes wondered what they really thought of President Obama, his policies and the overall political spectacle in Washington.
Clinton, Geithner and Gates have each published memoirs this year that deal largely with the Obama years, so we now know what they were thinking —sort of. All of the books are revealing, but in different ways. None, of course, tells the entire story of the author’s relationship with the president or discloses his or her fully candid thoughts on the Obama years. Still, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” by Robert M. Gates, “Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises” by Timothy F. Geithner and “Hard Choices” by Hillary Rodham Clinton will all be studied by historians as they try to understand and explain the consequential presidency of Barack Obama.
In assessing these memoirs, it’s important to consider the authors’ relationship with Obama, their motives for writing their book and their likely ambitions in the future.
Gates is a Republican statesman who earned considerable praise as defense secretary in the final two years of George W. Bush’s administration and the first two years of the Obama administration. After a long career in government, Gates has made it clear he has no desire to serve again. His book is wise, bracing and at times scathing. He does not appear to be pulling any of his punches.
Geithner was a financial technocrat when Obama asked him to head up the Treasury Department and tackle the financial crisis the new president inherited in January 2009. Geithner served as Obama’s energetic junior partner in economic matters and his book is a forceful and persuasive defense of the administration’s handling of the crisis, revealing what it was like to be at the center of the historic financial firestorm. He insists he has no desire to return to government service and writes with candor as he recounts policy disputes but refrains from personal criticisms.
Clinton was the president’s rival for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination and is both Obama’s political peer and possible successor. Her service as secretary of state bolstered her foreign policy credentials, saddled her with some additional baggage, expanded her popularity within the Democratic Party and positioned her as the prohibitive favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. Her book is careful and cautious, highlighting her experience while avoiding controversy.
These memoirs can be read on several levels, but all three shed light on President Obama and his administration, America’s current role in the world and the state of U.S. politics.
Robert Gates is one of the most respected members of the American foreign policy establishment. A long-time intelligence officer in the CIA, Gates later served as director of the CIA and as a senior staff member of George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council. His soft-spoken steeliness and calm demeanor have earned him the respect of lawmakers from both parties.
In November 2006, while serving as the president of Texas A&M University, Gates was asked by President George W. Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. The American war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan were failing and Republicans were routed in the mid-term congressional elections. Gates served Bush ably and was asked by Obama to remain at the Pentagon after the 2008 elections — becoming the only person in U.S. history to be asked to stay on as defense secretary by a newly elected president, let alone one from a different party. He led the Pentagon until his retirement in July 2011.
“Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” touches briefly on earlier aspects of Gates’s government career but sharply focuses on his four and a half years as secretary of defense. It’s a candid and caustic account that expresses deep affection and respect for America’s troops and profound frustration and even antipathy for the American political system. Gates describes his tenure at the Pentagon as a time of unending war. The main theaters of combat were Iraq, Afghanistan and the battle against terrorism. But he also extends the war metaphor to include his struggles with Congress and his efforts to overhaul the massive and change-resistant Pentagon.
When Gates arrived at the Pentagon, his highest priority was to turn around the faltering U.S. war in Iraq. Gates supported Bush’s initial decision to invade Iraq in 2003 but was alarmed at the “amazing bungling” that followed the invasion. While he does not directly attack Rumsfeld, he offers a withering assessment of the status of the American war effort in Iraq when he took office.
Gates backed and implemented Bush’s troop surge in 2007 to give Iraq’s political leaders breathing space to create a functioning government. He also wanted to prevent the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces, seeking a sustainable long-term strategy in Iraq that would protect American interests there and in the region.
As such, Gates laments the subsequent departure of all American troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 and blames Prime Minister Nouri al–Maliki and to a lesser extent the Obama administration. “I don’t know how hard the Obama administration — or the president personally — pushed Iraqis for an agreement that would have allowed a residual U.S. troop presence,” he writes, referring to events that occurred after he left the administration. “In the end, the Iraqi leadership did not try to get an agreement through their parliament that would have made possible a continued U.S. military presence after December 31. Maliki was just too fearful of the political consequences. Most Iraqis wanted us gone. It was a regrettable turn of events for our future influence in Iraq and our strategic position in the region. And a win for Iran.”
Iraq also diverted critical resources and attention from the war in Afghanistan and this, Gates argues, was a costly mistake. He offers a full account of the administration’s efforts to formulate its Afghanistan strategy, especially during the fall of 2009 when Obama presided over nine lengthy meetings of his National Security Council to chart a new course.
Gates discusses the internal battles over Afghan policy and how the president came to suspect the U.S. military was trying to force his hand by approving a large increase in troops. While Gates insists there was no military “plot” to pressure Obama, he does provide compelling evidence that Gen. Stanley McChrystal and others lobbied hard for Obama to agree to 40,000 additional troops for an Afghan surge. At a critical time during the deliberations, McChrystal’s staff leaked an explosive memo to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post that put enormous pressure on Obama to dispatch thousands of additional troops.
For his part, Gates pressed Obama to narrow his goals and shift from an ambitious bid to remake Afghan society to more limited but still difficult objectives: degrading the military capabilities of the Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan, building up the Afghan army and security forces, denying a safe haven for al-Qaeda and solidifying key Afghan government agencies.
Gates describes Obama’s Afghan policy review as both highly rigorous and excessively detailed. “In my entire career, I cannot think of any single issue or problem that absorbed so much of the president’s and the principals’ time and effort in such a compressed period. There was no angle or substantive point that was not thoroughly examined.”
Gates supported Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy but says the president steadily lost confidence in it. He charges that top White House officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, repeatedly provided Obama with reports that suggested the surge was not working. With palpable frustration, Gates describes a National Security Council meeting in March 2011 in which it was clear that Obama’s main concern was to hasten the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan. He writes: “As I sat there, I thought: the President doesn’t trust his own commander, 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.”
Gates’s description of trying to manage and reform the Pentagon is both compelling and dispiriting. He regrets being unable to change the Pentagon’s culture of endless meetings with omnipresent PowerPoint presentations. More consequently, he laments his failure to reform the Pentagon’s costly heath care and pension systems and despairs over the enormous difficulty of overhauling the Pentagon’s weapons acquisition system. Gates’s most devastating comments slam the Pentagon’s persistent penchant to fight the “next war,” even to the neglect of the two massively expensive and important wars still underway. He derides the Pentagon’s “business as usual” mentality during the Afghan and Iraq wars, concluding: “The Department of Defense is structured to plan and prepare for war, but not fight one.”
Gates bluntly admits that he hated being secretary of defense, was often eager to resign, but felt intense loyalty to the troops to remain as long as he could. His memoir captures the intensity of his life at the Pentagon and his conflicted feelings toward it. “The challenge for historians and journalists — and memoirists — is how to convey the crushing effect of dealing daily with multiple problems, pivoting on a dime every few minutes from one issue to another, having to quickly absorb reporting from many sources on each problem, and then making decisions, always with too little time and too much ambiguous information.”
Gates offers intriguing profiles of Obama and key members of his administration. He is generous toward the president, describing him as a man of considerable intellect and character, practical, open to compromise and willing to go against his political base. He calls Obama’s decision to deploy Special Forces to kill 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden both risky and brave.
Surprisingly, Gates says that for all of the obvious differences between George W. Bush and Obama, they share several traits. Both like to be surrounded by close aides, don’t participate in Washington’s social scene and decline to aggressively reach out to leaders on Capitol Hill and around the world. “Both presidents, in short, seemed to me to be very aloof with respect to two constituencies important to their success in foreign affairs.”
Gates is likewise kind to Hillary Clinton, saying his preconceptions about her were wrong and taught him the dangers of judging people before getting to know them. “I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world.”
Yet Gates is highly critical of the Obama White House, saying it’s run by young political operatives who want to ensure that anything good that happens is credited to the White House and who are far too involved in operational matters that should be handled by the Cabinet or the military. “His White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost,” he writes provocatively.
Gates passionately denounces the current state of American political life in which conflict is endemic and bridge builders are vanishing. He argues that in Washington, people are polite on the surface but critical problems are ignored or made worse by ill-conceived or politically motivated solutions. To that end, his perception of Congress is brutal, saying that while he supports the concept of a powerful legislative body as envisioned by the Constitution, the current institution is an ugly mess and the majority of its members are parochial, incompetent, rude, arrogant and selfish.
Tim Geithner’s “Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises” is a fast-paced and well-written account of what it’s like to be at the center of a devastating global financial crisis. The first half covers Geithner’s family background, early career and the origins of the financial crisis while the second half describes his work as Obama’s treasury secretary.
After living overseas as a child, Geithner studied international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, worked for the Kissinger Associates consulting firm, and then accepted a job at the Treasury Department’s international bureau, where he rose steadily through the ranks. He later worked at the International Monetary Fund for a few years and was then appointed president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, one of the most important jobs in finance.
As head of the New York Fed from 2003 to 2008, Geithner said he grew uneasy with the surge in borrowing from large and mostly unregulated parts of the financial industry such as investment banks and money market funds. He outlined his concerns in various speeches, including his first as the president of New York Fed, but did so in language that was muted and highly technical. His heavily nuanced warnings were largely ignored and he wonders if he could have done more to highlight the mounting threats.
When the financial crisis broke out in 2007 and exploded in 2008, Geithner worked closely with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to prevent a global collapse. “Anyone who wasn’t scared had no idea of how close we were to the abyss,” he writes.
About a month before the 2008 presidential election, Obama asked Geithner for a briefing on the economy and probed to see if Geithner was interested in becoming his treasury secretary. Geithner said there were better candidates who could approach the crisis with a fresh set of eyes. His background, Geithner later said, did not make him a natural choice for the powerful post: He was neither a banker, nor an economist, nor a politician, nor even a Democrat.
Nonetheless, Obama picked Geithner and he became one of the administration’s most visible economic leaders. Before the inauguration, he told Obama that the president’s main goal should be to prevent a global depression. Obama said he had larger ambitions such as education, health care and financial reform. Geithner’s response was, “If you don’t prevent a depression, you won’t be able to do anything else.”
Geithner says Obama inherited an economy “in absolute free fall” and helped repair a broken financial system, calm terrified markets, bolster consumer confidence and inject demand into the economy. He reminds us of how grim the recession was in the United States, pointing out that $15 trillion of household wealth vanished, 9 million people lost their jobs and the unemployment rate jumped to 10 percent.
Geithner chronicles the administration’s efforts to pass a fiscal stimulus package, shore up the housing sector, reform the financial system, support the European Union and battle over fiscal issues with congressional Republicans. “The pace was frantic, the pressure was overwhelming. I was worried the world was coming to an end and not sure we could stop it. I wasn’t wrapped up in the spirit of limitless possibility and new beginnings that had driven the Obama campaign; I felt none of the spark and excitement that pervaded the halls of the transition headquarters.”
Geithner said the central challenge was setting aside the political pressure for vengeance against those who caused the financial crisis and implementing policies to stabilize, and then heal, the economy. “Old Testament vengeance appeals to the populist fury of the moment, but the truly moral thing to do during a raging financial inferno is to put it out. The goal should be to protect the innocent, even if some of the arsonists escape their full measure of justice.”
One of the best features of Geithner’s book is his ability to be self-critical. “We had failed to prevent the worse financial crisis and the deepest recession in generations. I had the dubious distinction of being charge of the New York Fed when Wall Street imploded,” he admits.
He grimly recalls that his first major speech as treasury secretary in February 2009 was universally — and justifiably — panned. “It was a bad speech, badly delivered, rattling confidence at a bad time,” he says.
Geithner also faults himself and others in the administration for failing to persuasively explain their economic strategy. “I never found an effective way to explain to the public what we were doing and why. We did save the economy, but we lost the country doing it.”
Geithner paints a vivid picture of President Obama, whom he both likes and respects. “I thought he was smart, thoughtful, hardworking, demanding (but not harshly so), confident (but not overly so), relentlessly practical, and relatively indifferent to short-term political costs. He did his homework. He listened. He delegated. Some found him distant, but I saw him show plenty of warmth and emotion and dry humor,” Geithner writes. “He wasn’t paralyzed by the ugliness of choices or the prospect of criticism. He handled adversity remarkably well, which was fortunate, because he faced a lot of it.”
The president, Geithner added, was focused on policy, not politics, and endured criticisms from Democrats for not being bold enough and from Republicans for being a socialist. “We discussed the political ramifications of our decisions, but on the central questions of economic and financial policy, politics didn’t drive our decisions.”
At the same time, Geithner laments America’s “adolescent political culture,” Washington’s “soul-crushing pathologies” and a press corps that is often shallow and inaccurate. But he concludes that somehow the political system enacted economic policies that were imperfect, but successful.
“I witnessed some appalling behavior in the political arena — selfishness and grandstanding, shameless hypocrisy and mindless partisanship. At times, the failures of our political system imposed tragic constraints on our ability to make the crisis less damaging and the recovery stronger. And yet, at the moments of most extreme peril, our system worked. Two administrations — one Republican, one Democratic — managed to do what was necessary to end the crisis, start a recovery, and reform the system, attracting just enough bipartisan support to get a polarized Congress to do its part.”
Few recent memoirs have been met with greater fanfare than Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices.” An iconic figure, Clinton gained global prominence for her work as first lady, senator from New York and a presidential candidate who narrowly lost the Democratic nomination to Obama in 2008. This book focuses on her tenure as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, though it’s been pored over for clues to her political ambitions in 2016. Given the intense media glare, one would expect her memoir to be carefully written, cautious and crafted not to offend. This is true in spades.
Clinton describes the heavy demands of being secretary of state, traveling to 112 nations and famously logging almost a million miles in the air. She argues that a modern secretary of state can’t afford to just focus on a handful of big issues but must operate on “the whole chessboard” of global affairs.
America’s former top diplomat is a champion of smart power. “To succeed in the 21st century, we need to integrate the traditional tools of foreign policy — diplomacy, development assistance and military force — while also tapping the energy and ideas of the private sector and empowering citizens, especially the activists, organizers and problem solvers we call civil society, to meet their own challenges and shape their own futures,” she writes. This modern statecraft requires “harnessing new technologies, public-private partnerships, diaspora networks and other tools, and it soon carried us into fields beyond traditional diplomacy such as energy and economics.”
Clinton defends the Obama administration’s first-term foreign policy on most fronts. She touts the rebalancing toward Asia, solidifying ties to Europe, eliminating Osama bin Laden, drawing down the war in Iraq and ramping up the war in Afghanistan.
She also stands by the administration’s decision to improve ties with Russia in the infamous “reset,” declaring the objective was to find common ground on arms control, Iranian sanctions, Afghanistan and other issues. “For those who expected the reset to open a new era of goodwill between Russia and the United States, it proved to be a bitter disappointment. For those of us who had more modest expectations — that de-linking tough issues and toning down rhetoric on both sides could create space for progress on specific priorities — the reset delivered,” she writes.
Clinton insists she never expected things would go smoothly and adds that the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency halted progress on many fronts. She details a stark memo she sent Obama as she was leaving the administration warning that Putin needed to be dealt with firmly. She professes not to be surprised by Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and contends that the administration’s efforts to reinvigorate NATO, restore strained transatlantic relations and reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy “put us in a stronger position to meet this challenge, though Putin has many cards to play too.”
Clinton also uses her memoir to respond to critics. Regarding her Senate vote in 2002 granting President Bush authorization to use force in Iraq, Clinton says she tried to consider all the evidence and solicit opinions inside and outside government before supporting the resolution. “Over the years that followed, many Senators came to wish they had voted against the resolution. I was one of them. As the war dragged on, with every letter I sent to a family in New York who lost a son or daughter, a father or mother, my mistake became more painful.”
She says this mistake compelled her to view Bush’s 2007 plan for a troop surge into Iraq with deep skepticism. “Five years later President Bush asked us to trust him again, this time about his proposed surge, and I wasn’t buying it. I didn’t believe that simply sending more troops would solve the mess we were in,” she writes, noting that lessons of Iraq informed her approach to Afghanistan and gave her “more experience, wisdom, skepticism and humility.”
Clinton’s self-defense is most striking and detailed as it pertains to Libya and the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the Benghazi diplomatic compound that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. She devotes two carefully drafted chapters to the tragedy that Republicans hope will derail her presidential prospects, discussing her prompt decision to create a special Benghazi review panel and her acceptance of all 29 of its recommendations. But she says Republicans are not interested in constructive ideas. “I will not be part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans. It’s just plain wrong and it’s unworthy of our great country. Those who insist on politicizing the tragedy will have to do so without me,” she declares.
In other areas, Clinton tactfully tries to distance herself from some of the administration’s decisions. She recounts the 2009 dispute between Obama and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, over new Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The White House, she says, “locked itself into a confrontation” with Netanyahu and therefore “shared responsibility for creating that logjam by allowing the issue to turn into a test of wills.”
She also chides Obama for publically revealing that the United States would begin withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in 2011. “This was a starker deadline than I had hoped for, and I worried that it might send the wrong signal to friend and foe alike. Although I strongly believed in the need for a time-bound surge and a speedy transition, I thought there was benefit in playing our cards closer to our chests,” she says.
Clinton’s response to the civil war in Syria, however, was perhaps her most forceful dissention to Obama’s policies. She questions the 2012 decision to provide moderate rebels with non-lethal aid, but not with arms or training, and criticizes Obama for backing down from his threat to use force in the event the Assad regime used chemical weapons.
While many former American diplomats write memoirs that embrace lofty, Olympian views of foreign affairs, Clinton takes the opposite approach. She explains her stance toward politics and diplomacy with stories about childhood softball games and her church group in Illinois. For example, she recalls a Girl Scouts song to “make new friends, but keep the old” and then writes: “For America, our alliance with Europe is worth more than gold.” These contrived attempts to be folksy are distracting.
Another frustrating drawback of the book is that Clinton mentions a number of American and global leaders but then says little about them. She calls Army Gen. David Petraeus an “effective advocate” and politically savvy but doesn’t elaborate. She calls Netanyahu a “complicated figure” but doesn’t offer many specifics. She describes German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a firm leader but sidesteps the critical question about whether her policies were wise. “One could agree or not with her fiscal and monetary policies, but it was impossible not be impressed with her steely determination,” she writes evasively.
Similarly, Clinton provides a bland review of her battle with Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination but does offer a perceptive account of how he shrewdly and persistently wooed her to be his secretary of state, shifting the focus of his entreaties to the many issues she would work on rather than the mechanics of the job. She describes Obama as direct, “highly analytical” and not prone to small talk. She chides the White House staff for being controlling and seeking to stay at the center of all decision making, but doesn’t press the issue.
As for her future ambitions, Clinton says only that the next president must spell out his or her policy vision and leadership strategy. “The challenge is to lead in a way that unites us again and renews the American Dream,” she writes. As for her future: “The time for another hard choice will come soon enough.”
So what should we make of these three very different books — all 1,800 pages of them? What do they tell us about Barack Obama, his first term in office, American foreign policy and the state of U.S. politics? And how will these books be used by historians to understand our time?
I think Gates’s book will have the longest shelf life of the three and may come to be regarded as a classic account of Washington in the early 21st century. The book is honest, hard hitting and even angry. He is mad that American political leaders often fail to appreciate the costs and unpredictability of war and are prone to see military force as the first option. Gates shows how difficult it is to manage the sprawling Pentagon and how Congress’s parochial perspectives make it impossible to reform the defense budget. He accurately describes America’s complex relationship with Israel, arguing the two nations’ interests are compatible, but not identical — a point few U.S. officials have the courage to make.
His withering criticisms of Vice President Joe Biden, however, struck me as hyperbolic and gratuitous and distracted from his otherwise balanced account. While Biden has made mistakes, it’s not clear he has been any more wrong than Gates himself has been on foreign policy issues. Gates also takes shots at the Democratic leaders on the Hill, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, but goes easy on their Republican counterparts. And his comparison of the Obama administration to the Nixon administration appears designed to attract attention, and boost book sales, rather than to instruct.
Geithner’s “Stress Test” is a surprisingly riveting account of the 2008 financial crisis and the difficult choices leaders face when trying to respond to an economic meltdown. He conveys the complexity and exhaustion of policymakers as problems break out in all directions. His central points are persuasive: What is politically popular is often not good policy, and American voters rarely reward leaders just for averting disaster. Put differently, debacle prevention is not an electoral winner.
Clinton’s “Hard Choices” will be viewed as a classic of a different genre: a remarkably careful, cautious pre-campaign book that says enough to merit publication but not enough to reveal very much. To be fair, Clinton provides solid background on various foreign policy challenges but she is so circumspect that it annoys and even angers the reader. Then again, it would be foolish to write a revealing book now with her presumed presidential aspirations still alive. And she is not foolish.
What do these books tell us about President Obama?
All three authors depict Obama as a smart, civil, decent man of considerable substance who tries to find the right answer to policy challenges. He treats people respectfully and is willing to dig into problems and tackle them in their full complexity. But he does not emerge as a great political leader with a highly developed intuition and a clear governing strategy. Gates observes that Obama made little effort to reach out to two groups that would make him a strong foreign policy leader: Congress and international leaders. Geithner argues that when dealing with a financial crisis, a big part of the challenge is intuitive: feeling your way through situations in which nothing is clear and ambiguity is everywhere. We learn from these former insiders that outreach and intuition are not Obama’s strong suits.
All three books show that the United States remains at the center of global political, financial and security matters, but each implies that the country’s dominant role is receding. The recent financial crisis, the venomous budget showdowns between Obama and Republicans in Congress, and the poorly executed wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq have damaged America’s global reputation. Geithner wisely makes the point that what the United States does is far more significant than what it says. Example counts for more than do words. Put differently: America does not have a communications problem, it has a governance problem.
As for the state of U.S. politics, Clinton, whose extensive political experiences provide her with impressive standing on the topic, almost completely avoids discussion of it. There is presumably little to be gained by attacking a political system she hopes to lead in a few years. Gates and Geithner agree the American political system is deeply flawed, rancorous, petty, conflict-prone and compromise-averse. But Geithner, drawing from his experience in battling through the financial crisis, says the United States enacted policies that largely worked. Gates, from his perch at the Pentagon and perhaps from having attended too many heartbreaking funerals at Arlington Cemetery, concludes that the system is failing and not worthy of the brave troops he venerates.
To get as full an understanding of Obama as is currently possible, all three memoirs are worth reading, bearing in mind the specific biases of each author. However, if these three tomes are too much reading, you can just wait for Obama to write his memoir, which I’m guessing will come out a year or two after he departs the White House. This may provide the best explanation of Barack Obama that we ever get.
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.