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CROSSFIRE

Gates Book Slams Obama

Aired January 7, 2014 - 18:28   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, bombshell revelations from Obama's former defense secretary. Robert Gates says the president didn't believe in his own war strategy. His new book also contains shocking revelations about Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

On the left Van Jones. On the right Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Lawrence Korb, who supports the president, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, who questions his policies. Is President Obama's foreign policy in shambles? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

VAN JONES, CO-HOST: And I'm Van Jones on the left.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, we've got a pair of defense experts who have very different views on President Obama's foreign policy.

Well, a political bombshell has hit Washington's atmosphere. The "New York Times" and "The Washington Post" have shared portions of former defense secretary Robert Gates' upcoming book. And from what we've read so far, Gates just dumps all over the president, the vice president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

We'll get to Clinton and Biden in a minute, but first, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, who has covered Gates for years, is here with the details -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Van.

Well, you know, the Pentagon is always gossip central in Washington, and this book is getting a lot of attention through those excerpts already up and down the Pentagon hallway.

Remember, Bob Gates was always seen as a team player and someone who demanded loyalty from his own people. Now, shocking revelations about what he felt about the president.

Let me get to just a couple of them for you. In the book according to the excerpts, Mr. Gates says that the president regarding Afghanistan, quote, "doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him it is all about getting out."

Gates goes on to say that early in the administration, quoting again, "suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials, including the president and the vice president, became a big problem for me."

Remember, Van, I mean, this is a man who signed orders every week while he was secretary of defense, sending troops off to war. His public persona was such that, certainly, he expressed his views somewhat. He was somewhat candid but not the level of criticism that we are seeing fired directly at President Obama and other members of the White House staff -- Van.

JONES: Barbara, thank you very, very much.

Well, so much for bipartisanship. President Obama, in my view, put a Republican in his cabinet, and the guy doesn't get -- so much get out the door before he starts working on this tell-all hyperemotional memoir. It undercuts every Democrat he worked with. Surprise, surprise.

Now, I just want to say it is almost -- almost unheard of for a cabinet member to engage in this level of betrayal against a sitting president. And it's this kind of back-stabbing, in my view, that makes it impossible for the two parties to work together in this town. In my view, Robert Gates should be ashamed of himself.

GINGRICH: Aren't you at least a little worried by what he wrote, as opposed to you dislike what he wrote?

JONES: I can't give any credit or credibility to what he wrote. If he felt this strongly he should have said something to the president to his face. This guy says nothing to the president's face, by his own admission. He runs out the door and writes a book and puts in public for money what he should have told the president to his face.

GINGRICH: So you just write it off?

JONES: He has no credibility in my view.

GINGRICH: We are going to pursue that in the next few minutes.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Lawrence Korb, who supports President Obama's foreign policy, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, who is a critic of the policy.

I want to ask you, Larry, because you've been around for a long time. You've been in very senior positions. If Gates is anywhere close to accurate that the president's real view all along was to not trust Petraeus, at least in one quote, to not trust our allies in Afghanistan and to really just want to get out, then doesn't it bother you that an awful lot of young men and women went there to risk their lives? If the president was that committed to not winning, wouldn't he have been better off, wouldn't the country have been better off to have just gotten out of it and avoiding the casualties? LAWRENCE KORB, SUPPORTS OBAMA'S FOREIGN POLICY: No. Obama inherited a mess, because Bush refused the demands of General McKiernan. In fact, if you read David Sanger's book, you know, he talks about the fact that Gates and Mullen, who was the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told McKiernan, don't even ask for more troops, and Afghanistan was going down the toilet.

When Obama came in, he gave them more troops, as he said in the campaign, and then when the military said that's not even enough, he gave them even more, but when he announced it he said it's until 2009.

And he asked them. You know, "The military, can you turn it around by then?" And they said yes. And then they started leaking things to -- to the press.

General McKiernan -- I mean, General McChrystal goes over and gives a speech in Europe at the International Institute of Strategic Studies criticizing Obama. And then, of course, Petraeus leaked it and said, well, he doesn't like, you know, the fact that there is a day to withdraw. But Obama had said that "I'm going to do that. Can you get it done by the end of 2011?" And they said yes.

JONES: I, first of all, appreciate that history and that background. And then, as for right now today, with this kind of, I think, top- level betrayal on the part of a former cabinet member, how can anybody take this guy seriously? He apparently does not tell George Bush the truth about what he thinks. He doesn't tell the president of the United States and he's keeping a little diary. And he throws that out there to create this huge firestorm to sell books.

Do you take this guy seriously at all?

REUEL MARC GERECHT, CRITIC OF OBAMA'S FOREIGN POLICY: Well, I would say, yes. I mean, one, as someone who writes for a living, I always admire people who write. So I think it's very good that former cabinet ministers write. Most of them do not write well.

JONES: And most of them do not write against a sitting president that is still there commanding troops in the field. Don't you think he at least should wait until the president of the United States, he was serving is done with his term of office? You're not shocked by this at all? This is outrageous.

GERECHT: No. No, I'm not shocked by that. I mean, I think the book will either stand or fall on its own. So if he's telling the truth, then let the truth win out. I don't think the president of the United States should be scared of the truth.

And if it's not truthful then I'm sure we'll have a pretty vivid discussion of where Mr. Gates got things wrong.

I will just say this. I remember when he published his first memoir, which was essentially his time in the CIA and the National Security Council, and it wasn't a great read, but it was a good read. It was an interesting read. It had a lot of details. He took on the agency; he took on the clandestine service, by the way, where I used to serve. And I thought he did it rather thoughtfully, so I had many, many disagreements with Mr. Gates.

But I have to say, he has...

JONES: You have a view about this stuff, given to you about this substance that's coming out so far?

GERECHT: Well, I mean, I haven't seen anything that was in the "Washington Post" piece that you would consider surprising. I don't think President Obama really had this dichotomy, between Iraq being the bad war and Afghanistan being the good war. I think he thought both wars were bad. And I think he was pretty intent on getting the United States out of both of them, getting them out of the United States and reducing America's global footprint.

KORB: Again, I think that's wrong. He called Iraq ahead of time a dumb war, which was correct. I mean, it was fought under false pretenses. But during the campaign, he kept talking about Afghanistan is the war we need to fight.

Before he even met with the chiefs to, you know, look at the strategy, he basically doubled the number of troops. And then, after they fired McKiernan without, you know, checking with him. Basically, then they brought in a new commander. And when you bring in a new commander, General McChrystal, he asked for more troops. And then Obama said, "OK, I will."

They leaked the number that he had asked. I mean, to me, I'd have fired Gates right then when the stuff showed up in the press about how many troops the Pentagon wanted. They asked for 40 more. He gave them 30 more. He ended up giving them 70,000 more troops. And then he said, "Can you turn it around in two years? I don't want another Vietnam" is what he said. And they said yes.

JONES: And thank goodness the president had that view.

GINGRICH: Wait a second. This is what I don't understand about where we are, not just with Obama but the whole situation.

If this is a war worth fighting, then it's a war, probably, we should win. It's pretty clear now we're not going to win this. We're going to pull out. Karzai is either going to -- the Karzai regime will collapse at some point. Pakistan has been endangered and sucked into this whole mess.

And the fact is, just as we're watching, you know, al Qaeda is now in Fallujah. I mean, you have to at some level back up and say beyond just partisan politics and leaks and books and things, if this was the right place to fight, if Obama, in your view, said Iraq is wrong, Afghanistan is right, then shouldn't the question have been under what circumstance can a stable Afghan regime dominate? And we clearly are not going to get there. We have imposed political deadlines for political reasons. And we're going to pull out without regard...

KORB: Well, Karzai picked 2014. That wasn't us. That's him. Just like Malachi in Iraq picked the 2011. The real question: we keep trying to lead troops there, and he won't agree to give them immunity. JONES: Agree?

GERECHT: Well, no. Those dates really aren't correct. I mean, the president could have been much more assertive than Iraq. I'm not going to be -- Larry and I have had this debate many times. I would argue that the Iraq was more important than the Afghan war.

But the president certainly has given sentiment that he wants to withdraw from the Middle East. I think that's crystal clear.

JONES: Well, you say withdraw from the Middle East. I think the American people are tired of these land wars that Bush blundered us into that were not managed properly under Bush. Gates was supposed to have been brought in to try to fix what Bush did.

Obama gave him a chance to continue that work, to complete that work. And the way he is then thanked for that opportunity to serve his country is with this sort of betrayal.

And one of the things I think we've got to look at -- I want to just put this quote up. Here is an admission of a complete dereliction of duty on the part of the head of our -- look, "I never confronted Obama directly over what I, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw as the determination that the White House can tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operation."

In other words, here is a man whose responsibility it is to all those troops, according to him now sees something going on now, too much control at the White House level. Never even raises it with the president of the United States until now.

Now, you have been in the CIA. You understand the impact of the morale of troops around the world and people who work in this field. Doesn't this just strike you as completely eviscerating the credibility of Robert Gates going forward?

GERECHT: No. I mean, without being there, it's difficult to assess why Secretary Gates didn't do this or didn't do that. I mean, I have to say, just assessing his personality, Mr. Gates has always struck me as being sort of an old-fashioned WASP, which means he's not prone to sort of publicly flailing his criticisms.

JONES: Until now. Did he change his ethnicity or something with the book?

GERECHT: He's out of office. He's writing. He should write. He should say whatever he wants.

But I -- I don't know. I mean, I would have preferred that Mr. Gates perhaps had been more forceful in his criticisms earlier on. But you know, I have to read the book to get a better explanation for why he didn't.

GINGRICH: When we get back I'm going to describe what Gates says about Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, the two leading Democrats for president in 2016. If Gates is right, it would disqualify both of them.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GINGRICH: Welcome back.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Lawrence Korb and Reuel Marc Gerecht.

This afternoon, excerpts from a brand new book by former Defense Secretary Bob Gates leaked, creating a sensation here in Washington, which loves sensations, and potentially affecting the 2016 race for president. Two of the more amazing revelations concern Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.

Gates writes that Vice President Joe Biden, quote, "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades," end quote.

He praises Secretary Clinton in many ways but notes a conversation in which she cynically and hypocritically said she opposed the Iraq troop surge in 2007 for blatantly political reasons.

I guess, Larry, the question I ask you is, don't you find -- assuming Gates is not making it up, it is a little disconcerting of somebody of the caliber and seriousness of Secretary Clinton on an issue of life and death when we go to risk the lives, taking on a purely tactical, political decision.

LAWRENCE KORB, SUPPORTS OBAMA'S FOREIGN POLICY: Well, I think it's important, under what -- when did she say this? How did she say this? Was this given in confidence? I mean, it's very easy to say, well, she said this. Do we have the notes of the meeting? Or exactly, you know, what --

GINGRICH: Wait a second, but why does it matter?

KORB: Well, we don't know if it is true. Just like you said Biden has been wrong for 40 years. Biden was right about the Balkans. Biden was right above Iraq breaking up. So, the idea that -- I mean, when you make these statements, you know, does he have the notes? Does he have a record --

GINGRICH: So, would you dismiss the book? Or would you take it --

KORB: I would dismiss the book because every time I've checked Gates, he'll say one thing and then do another. He goes to the Navy League and says, why do we have 11 carriers and nobody has more than one? And then somebody says, you want to get rid of our carriers? No.

He goes to West Point and says, any secretary of defense, you know, that advocates sending large land armies into the Middle East should have his examined. He gets asked at the next press conference, well, didn't you recommend sending 100,000 troops to Afghanistan and Iraq? He took it back.

So, he's always tried to be on both sides of the issue. I mean, he thought, he was upset when Reagan started negotiating with Gorbachev. He said he'd be succeeded by Stalinists. OK?

He was wrong about Osama bin Laden, which according to what I read he does admit in the book, that he didn't want to go in and get him.

VAN JONES, CO-HOST: So, I mean, I think that if Gates wants to come forward and start analyzing everybody else's record and pulling everybody else apart and he's going to wind up getting a lot of that. But one of the most peculiar, bizarre criticisms that he has apparently in the president is that the president had second feelings and misgivings about the war in Afghanistan.

Surprise. That is -- I mean, I want to show the numbers. The vast majority of the American people shared those misgivings. It's the fact that the president was in touch with the feelings of most Americans, that this war was not in our interest anymore, why he was elected. He was doing what he supposed to.

Do you think it is a fair criticism of President Obama that he is getting us out of these land wars?

REUEL MARC GERECHT, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: Well, I think -- I suspect President Obama wasn't terribly in favor of the Afghan war in 2008. The issue is his constancy. I mean, I'm very much in favor of the Iraq war, very much in favor of the Afghan war, so was Hillary Clinton, so were most Democrats in the Senate.

I think the president has been a little Janus-faced. I think it's pretty hard to look at the record and not have very strong suspicions that the president chose this dichotomy between the bad war and good war for political reasons. I mean, I would agree with Newt. If Hillary Clinton really did back away from the surge for political reasons, it is disconcerting because she was in favor of the Iraq war. I would actually give her credit for being in favor of the Iraq war.

So, if she was going against it strictly because of politics, then that is, I think, a fairly damming note.

GINGRICH: Larry, let me ask. I think, I'm really glad you are here tonight because both of you are genuine experts and both of you have been operators in the business of national security.

It strikes me that far beyond this book and, frankly, far beyond even President Obama, we now have huge problems growing.

I mean, you have al Qaeda growing in strength and fundamentalist forces growing in strength in Syria. You have Egypt shaky. You have Iraq beginning to fall apart. You may well have al Qaeda in charge of Fallujah by the next week or so. You know, problems in Pakistan, which is very dangerous because of nuclear weapons and you have the Iranians.

I mean, doesn't it strike you that on a bipartisan basis, we need to really have fundamental reassessment of the Middle East, not just a pro or anti-Obama assessment, but a real effort to come to grips with what are out interests and what are our goals?

KORB: I think we do. One of the big changes is we're going to be less and less dependent on oil from that part of the world.

Remember the First Gulf War, Jim Baker, who was the secretary of state at that time. So, you know, why are you guys going in there? It's about oil. And they said, oh, no, no, it really was about oil. I mean, Kuwait was not democracy and anything like that. So, now, it's going to be different.

We're not going to have to treat the Saudis as a gas station anymore. OK? I mean, basically, you know, we're going to --

JONES: You're saying that because under President Obama, we've increased energy production so much.

KORB: Right. And he --

(CROSSTALK)

GINGRICH: I love you --

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

JONES: Just pointing out. Just pointing out, under President Obama.

KORB: You know, what happened after 9/11, it wasn't we got carried away. We thought we could reform the world and create democracy. You remember people saying, the way to, you know, Jerusalem is through Baghdad, once we do that.

And, you know, people were saying, well, we can't take care of Iraq and then we can go to Iran. I think we got carried away. Not all these things were about us. The key issue we have right now is Iran's nuclear weapons, the proliferation of weapons. Yes, that's very critical. But in terms of who runs Egypt or who runs Tunisia, OK, I think it's much different.

And I got to say something, I met Maliki in 2011, Chuck Hagel was then at Georgetown. I asked him, was there anything Obama could have done to keep more troops? And he said, no, Bush signed an agreement to get out, and we're going to keep it.

JONES: Now, what's your view of this? The speaker is doing a good job of trying to pull us back. Let's look at this -- the bigger picture. What's your view?

I mean, I think that this president inherited a mess from Bush. Everybody who is Republican wants to talk about Reagan. You can never talk about Bush. I'm happy to talk about Bush as well. I think he's been doing a good job. I think most Americans are glad we're pulling back.

Do you think the president is fundamentally off course in any way?

GERECHT: Well, yes. I mean, one, I would say, he inherited a fairly decent situation in Iraq, which he messed up badly. You know, I have to say, I don't -- I disagree completely with Larry completely about the issue of energy. I don't think United States gets to be free of the Middle East. If you just look at the production rates and you realize how dependent our allies are, unless you intend of bonding all of Western Europe, I don't think the United States gets to run from the Middle East.

So, I think you also ought to be aware that, you know, 9/11 wasn't all that long ago. The odds that the United States is going to get hit for another massive terrorist strike go up because of what's happened in the Middle East now.

JONES: Well, we can talk about this more when we get back. Stay here, both of you. And next, we're going to have the final question for both our guests.

Also we want you at home to way in on today's "Fireback" question. Is Bob Gates' decision to write a tell-all book an act of courage or betrayal? Tweet courage or betrayal using #crossfire. We're going to give you those results after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JONES: We're back with Lawrence Korb and Reuel Marc Gerecht.

Now, it's time for our final question.

I let you go first.

GINGRICH: The one that hit me after looking at what Gates has done, do you think senior officials should sign a contract not to write during the period of the administration they are serving?

KORB: I don't think they should sign a contract, but I think it's understood that you just don't do that. I mean, after all, it's a great privilege for the person who has been elected to put you into this job.

I always got the feeling Gates thought he was doing the president a favor by staying on. And that is absolutely the wrong thing. These are -- and you owe your loyalty to that man or woman in the White House. And if you can't handle it, like Cy Vance, before we try to rescue the hostages in Iran, you leave and you're quiet.

But Gates wanted to have it both ways.

JONES: I agree with that 100 percent. The name of the book is "Duty." I think the guy had a duty to tell the president the truth when he was working there, and he had a duty to have some discretion when he left. But he didn't do that.

You've been apart of this world for a long time. What message did do you think it sends to the troops around the world when they find out the secretary of defense had this level of misgivings about the orders that they were getting from him? GERECHT: Well, again, without reading the book, it's difficult to give a good answer, but I would say that some folks may be upset that he wasn't more forceful in expressing his views to the president. That's I think a legitimate take on this.

JONES: Well, thank you very much. I want to thank both of our guests tonight. Hopefully, we'll have you back very, very soon.

GINGRICH: Go to Facebook or Twitter to weigh in on our "Fireback" question. Is Bob Gates' decision to write a tell-all book an act of courage or betrayal?

Right now, 45 percent of you say courage, 55 percent say betrayal.

JONES: And the debate will continue online at CNN.com/crossfire, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Van Jones.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.