Just when I was ready to (nearly) give up on President Obama’s Afghanistan policy and put him squarely in General Petraeus’s khaki pocket, along comes Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars to cheer me up.
Unlike the New York Times, which “obtained” an advance copy of Woodward's new book, and the Washington Post, where Woodward works, I haven’t read the book yet. Still, it has some very intriguing gossip about the decision-making in the White House over the bungled and failing war.
Not all of it cheers me up, of course. The revelation that the United States maintains a secret, CIA-backed covert army of Afghan nationals, 3000 strong, that occasionally crosses the border into Pakistan in search of bad-guy Taliban members is pretty scary.
But Woodward makes it clear that Obama has been virtually at war with his military commanders, including Petraeus, since the earliest days of his administration. Petraeus, sounding precisely like General McChrystal, who got himself fired after yammering about Obama in Rolling Stone, blusters at one point (“after a glass of wine”) that Obama is “[fucking] with the wrong guy.” So much for civilian control of the armed forces! As the Times notes, “General Petraeus was effectively banned by the administration from the Sunday talk shows but worked private channels with Congress and the news media.” McChrystal did the same thing, in 2009, leaking madly to the media (including Woodward, who got ahold of McChrystal’s strategy paper last summer) and giving high-profile interviews on shows such as 60 Minutes. Woodward makes clear that Obama wants out. At one crucial White House meeting, Obama says:
“This needs to be a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan. Everything we're doing has to be focused on how we're going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It's in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.”
And, my favorite:
“I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”
And finally, in a quote that Petraeus saw as a personal repudiation, this from Obama:
“In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, 'We're doing fine, Mr. President, but we'd be better if we just do more.' We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission]…unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.”
Of course, it’s hard to square those sentiments with the fact that Obama in the end pretty much gave McChrystal and Petraeus what they wanted. But, he added the July 2011 timetable. And according to Woodward, Obama wrote a detailed memo outlining his own strategy for the war, and he won a commitment from all his advisers, including Petraeus, to support it.
One of the biggest sources of tension reported in the book is between the generals and Obama’s political people, who recognize that the war isn’t popular. Throughout, Obama seems aware that he is in danger of morphing into President Bush, fighting a losing war endlessly, while losing political support at home. At one point, Obama says, “I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”