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President Obama / MANDEL NGAN, AFP/Getty Images

President Obama declined to get drawn into the flap about Robert Gates' book on Monday, describing his former defense secretary as "a good friend of mine" and an "outstanding" public servant.

"I'll always be grateful for his service," Obama told reporters after a meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Obama did appear to contest part of Gates' critique, however, saying: "Just as I have continued to have faith in our mission, most importantly I've had unwavering confidence in our troops and their performance in some of the most difficult situations imaginable."

In his book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War, to be released publicly on Tuesday, Gates said Obama made the right decisions on Afghanistan, but wound up questioning whether his policy would work after second-guessing by his staff, including Vice President Biden.

Asked about the book, Obama told reporters he has always had faith in the Afghanistan mission, and that mission remains.

"The job is not yet done," Obama said. "War is never easy."

Obama said "what's important is that we got the policy right ... 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, then part of your job as commander in chief is to sweat the details on it," he said.

Obama added: "You're constantly asking yourselves questions about how you can improve the strategy."

U.S. and allied combat operations are scheduled to end in Afghanistan at the end of the year, Obama noted, as security responsibility shifts to the Afghans themselves.

"War is never easy," Obama said. "And I think that all of us who have been involved in that process understand that."

The meeting with the Spanish leader came a day after the administration announced that the clock would start ticking on a six-month agreement with Iran, which is cutting back parts of its nuclear program in exchange for a loosening of sanctions.

The United States, allies and Iran will spend those six months negotiating a long-term deal, though Obama said those efforts will be hurt if Congress follows through on a plan to pass new sanctions. Obama again urged Congress not to pass new sanctions, saying they would damage long-term negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.

Obama has vowed to prevent Iran from securing the means to make nuclear weapons; Iran has said its program is for peaceful purposes.

"My preference is for peace and diplomacy," Obama said. "And this is one of the reasons why I've sent the message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions. Now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Obama: Gates is 'good friend of mine'

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