Robert Gates, for five years the Pentagon chief to two successive presidents, has lobbed a grenade into the 2016 race for the Oval Office in his book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.
The plain-speaking, widely respected Washington veteran spent decades in senior intelligence posts before being picked as defence secretary, first by George W. Bush and then his successor Barrack Obama. But his just-published memoir has produced an instant firestorm in frigid Washington this week.
Savaging others while burnishing one's own reputation is standard fare for "kiss and tell" memoirs penned by departed Washington insiders, but Mr. Gates' book is, at times, unusually candid. In it, he takes pot shots at a sitting President as well as the two Democrat front-runners: former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden.
Mr. Biden is portrayed as something of a chronic loser, a man on the wrong side of history whose endless denigration of the nation's senior military officers sometimes seems like Chinese water torture. Mr. Gates accuses Mr. Biden of being "wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." But he also takes a swing at Ms. Clinton.
Ms. Clinton, extolled as "smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world" is, nonetheless, billed as a political opportunist. Mr. Gates says he heard Ms. Clinton admit to Mr. Obama that her public opposition to the troop surge in Iraq was a political manoeuvre because she was fighting to win the Iowa primary, rather than the right war decision. "Hillary told the President that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa," Mr. Gates writes in a nasty assessment that will reinforce her opponents' view that Ms. Clinton put always puts her own political advantage first.
The excerpts could provide fodder if – as expected – Mr. Biden and Ms. Clinton battle for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Mr. Gates is hardly the first former insider to cash in with candid and sometimes caustic evaluations of his former bosses and colleagues. His book, like most, will create a big media splash for a few days and then may vanish without lasting impact.
The author, 69, also paints a sometimes unflattering picture of Mr. Obama as a commander-in-chief wavering over his own war strategy in Afghanistan. "As I sat there, I thought, the President doesn't trust his commander, can't stand [Afghanistan's 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 writes.
Picked by Mr. Bush to replace the divisive and controversial Donald Rumsfeld in 2006, Mr. Gates has moments of high praise for Mr. Obama, the Democrat who asked him to stay on at the Pentagon. He calls Mr. Obama's risky choice to send in Special Forces to kill Osama bin Laden "one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed." Most of the President's inner circle, including Mr. Gates himself, wanted to simply bomb the Pakistani compound where Mr. bin Laden was hiding with air strikes that would have left uncertainty about whether the al-Qaeda leader was dead.
Caught by surprise by the book's accusations, the White House lauded Mr. Gates' long service even as it defended Mr. Biden and disputed some of the accounts of presidential disdain for senior military officers.
Mr. Gates seems to have toyed on a regular basis with quitting in a huff. He finally left in 2011.
"All too frequently, the exit lines were on the tip of my tongue. … It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch. And it was always enjoyable to listen to three former senators – Obama, Biden and Clinton – trash-talking Congress."