How has President Obama mismanaged the Afghanistan war? Bob Woodward’s new book counts the ways. There’s a president retreating after a “generals’ revolt,” domestic politics overriding any concern with the war’s outcome and — according to the leaked portions of the book due out today — much more. But the White House is praising Obama’s Wars, not condemning it.
If you are confused, dear reader, take comfort in the fact that you are no more so than our president.
Before we get to the revealing parts of Woodward’s book, it’s time to pull back on the stick and gain a little altitude. What Woodward’s book reveals is a president whose sole concern — regardless of the issue — is how it will affect his domestic political position.
Obama’s 2008 campaign was an anti-war campaign reminiscent of George McGovern’s in 1972. When elected, Obama ordered an immediate review of our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, to withdraw from Iraq and fight smarter in Afghanistan than Bush had. This review took two months and resulted in a new policy, released on March 27, 2009. It provided for new diplomatic “mechanisms,” more civilian assistance to Afghanistan’s government, and encouraged the Karzai government to seek reconciliation with the insurgents. (Reconciliation, assumed to be a mutual goal, didn’t attract the Taliban for the simple reason they believe they are winning. And they are right.).
Reality caught up to that policy in just 90 days. Defense Secretary Bob Gates ordered a new policy review on June 26, 2009. There ensued a five-month debate that resulted in Obama’s military advisors being divided from the president to a degree not seen since the MacArthur-Truman dispute in 1951.
In August 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal submitted a congressionally mandated report that said, in part, “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” The report was released to the public almost instantly, possibly by McChrystal.
Those of us not privy to the internal debate saw that while the Obama team dithered, it was subjected to increasing and highly unusual public pressure from Gen. David Petraeus, then CENTCOM commander, and Gen. McChrystal, then commander in Afghanistan. In shockingly candid interviews and speeches, the two forced the president to surge troops into Afghanistan to support the counterinsurgency.
At this point, the press was mildly critical of the generals for trying to corner the president, which they obviously were. Was it insubordination? Perhaps. But Petraeus and McChrystal had direct responsibility to conduct the war, and had to choose between pressuring the White House and resigning. McChrystal was later fired for heavy-handed insubordination published in Rolling Stone. Petraeus chose to stay — for now — and is now stuck with pursuing a policy he knows will not succeed.
Contrast these actions with the 2006 media-manufactured “revolt of the generals” which quickly became a feeding frenzy. Six retired generals (without authority or responsibility for anything) were bashing then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, demanding his removal. The Washington Post, in April 2006, defended its earlier call for Rumsfeld’s departure. The revolt failed: Rumsfeld stayed through the 2006 election.
The new “generals’ revolt” put the media in a box: on one hand, they wouldn’t criticize the president they’d just created; on the other, they couldn’t take on Petraeus, who may be the most trusted man in America. The 2006 “generals’ revolt” failed because it was political. This revolt succeeded because it was substantive. Woodward’s book reportedly shows why.
According to the New York Times report of September 21, Woodward wrote: “The president concluded from the start that ‘I have two years with the public on this’ and pressed advisers for ways to avoid a big escalation.” The book quotes Obama imploring, “I want an exit strategy.” The report also quotes the book that, “Privately, [Obama] told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, ‘I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.'”
The Times report on the book also quotes Obama as saying, “Get the forces in faster and out faster.… You tell me that the biggest problem we have now is that the momentum is with the Taliban and the reason for this resource request is that the momentum is with the Taliban. But you’re not getting these troops into Afghanistan’ for more than a year. I’m not going to make a commitment that leaves my successor with more troops than I inherited in Afghanistan.”
So Obama granted a “McChrystal Lite” surge — 30,000 rather than the 40-60,000 requested — and imposed the July 2011 date to begin withdrawal. Which made no sense to his military and diplomatic advisors. The September 21 New York Times report says that the book reveals that Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, held over from his service as “war czar” for Bush, harbors grave doubts about the latest strategy Obama has chosen. Woodward reports that Lute believes “that the president’s review did not ‘add up’ to the decision he made.” Amb. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is quoted as saying Obama’s strategy cannot work.
The generals’ revolt against Obama’s political view of the war continues. In August, nine months after Obama’s new strategy was announced, Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway said, “In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance…. In fact, we’ve intercepted communications that say, ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.'” Obama has since reaffirmed the July 2011 planned withdrawal, which means we will hear more from Petraeus, Conway, and others.
According to a September 22 Washington Post report on Woodward’s book, Obama granted Woodward an extensive interview. In it, he told Woodward that he didn’t think of the war in “classic” terms of winning and losing, only in terms of making Afghanistan stronger rather than weaker in the end.
It is bizarre and revealing that the White House is supportive of Woodward’s book. The Hill newspaper reported Wednesday quoting a White House source that, “The president comes across in the review, and throughout the decision-making process, as a commander in chief who is analytical, strategic and decisive, with a broad view of history, national security and his role.”
That quote should be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records under the heading of “most spin in one sentence.” But it does confirm what Woodward wrote. There’s not one report that the White House disputes anything in Woodward’s book.
The 2010 election will be decided entirely on economic and personal issues. But in 26 months, we will choose a president again. By then, Iraq will have failed, Afghanistan will be irretrievably lost, and Iran may have achieved its nuclear weapons ambitions. Republicans would be wise to focus it on Obama’s wars and his irresponsible, narcissistic approach to them.
Is there a war president-in-waiting out there? On November 3, one should step forward boldly.
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