Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” offers a disturbing account of President Barack Obama’s lack of leadership and the flawed decision-making practices of his national security team. Although Woodward never explicitly says so, he makes a strong case that President Obama has redefined and expanded a war that neither he nor his leading advisers believe will end successfully for the United States. The bottom line is that Obama endorsed a decision in which he almost certainly doesn’t believe. He and his national security team must realize that the Afghan situation in July 2011, when we are supposed to begin the withdrawal of troops, will be no different than it is today.
His account suggests that very little thought was given to the geopolitical and military consequences of the decision to increase the fighting force, the costs and duration of the war and the geopolitical consequences of the decision to escalate. The discussion of domestic consequences was limited and superficial, even wrong headed. Worst of all, short shrift was given to the major problem in the area, the threat of a nuclear-armed Pakistan where the government is slowly falling apart, the military is openly challenging the government and the insurgency is gaining strength.
The decision-making process was flawed from the start. The White House never requested a National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan from the director of national intelligence. The intelligence community, moreover, played an insignificant role and CIA director Leon Panetta advised that “no Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he [Obama] asked for it…. So just do it. Do what they say.” The State Department was also a nonplayer, with no effort made to revive the policy planning staff, which has become a speech-writing group for the secretary of state.
The decision last year to introduce 30,000 additional soldiers and Marines was based on four assumptions – all of them false: US force can degrade the Taliban, Afghan security forces will be prepared to take over the fight, the Afghan government can be stabilized and the sanctuaries in Pakistan can be closed. Pakistan has demonstrated neither the willingness nor the capability to challenge the presence of the Afghan Taliban in the tribal areas of Pakistan. No counterinsurgency campaign has been successful when the insurgents have had access to a sanctuary.
Woodward details how Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and leading flag officers (including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal) boxed in the president on the decision and publicly campaigned for more troops while the decision-making process was underway. The uniformed military essentially intimidated President Obama, who was overly concerned that Gates would resign or that the generals would go public with their criticism.
Eventually, even the president became impatient with his sphinx-like secretary of defense. When nearly two hours had gone by at an important meeting and Gates had said nothing, President Obama facetiously said, “Bob, I’d love to hear what you’re thinking. I know still waters run deep. What’s on your mind?” National security Adviser Gen. James Jones, who was unsure about Gates, observed that the secretary of defense “tended to hang back, figure out which way decisions were going, where everyone else, including the president, was leaning and then jump that way.” These are the characteristics of a staff man or a windsock, not a cabinet official.
Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the senior adviser for Afghanistan and Pakistan, thought that Gates was overly deferential to the military and, in failing to assert civilian control at the Pentagon, didn’t serve the president. Lute observed that Gates held his cards “close – being so quiet, so subdued,” which wore thin. (Lute’s description matches my own experience at the CIA, watching Gates as an adviser to CIA Director Casey nearly 30 years ago.) As Woodward points out, Gates was “playing the role of the new Cheney – whispering confidentially in the ear of an inexperienced commander in chief. It gave him extraordinary leverage.”
While Generals Petraeus and McChrystal campaigned for more troops, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates remained largely silent at key meetings of the National Security Council. And when President Obama asked for options from the Pentagon for reducing the troop strength, he was ignored by the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Eventually, the president had to go to the deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs to obtain the information he was seeking. (This is ironic. In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton asked for options from the Pentagon for dealing with the challenge from the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda and the Pentagon produced nothing.)
When President John F. Kennedy realized how poorly he was served by the military and the intelligence community in the Bay of Pigs debacle, he became more skeptical of military advice. As a result, he did a far better job of leadership in the Cuban missile crisis the following year. One can only hope that President Obama will understand how poorly he has been served by his military leadership on Afghanistan and that he recognizes that the military wields far too much influence in the White House and on Capitol Hill and controls too much of the depleted US treasury. President Obama should have paid more attention to the advice of Vice President Joe Biden as well as the offline counsel from a small group of courageous three- and four-star generals, some active duty and some retired, who detailed the holes in the Pentagon’s demands for additional force in Afghanistan. A review of last year’s decision on troops will be reviewed in December, and we can only hope that the president widens the circle of decision makers.
“Obama’s Wars” is Bob Woodward 16th book and there are no surprises in style or methodology for his legion of readers. Woodward is an ordinary writer; the book reads like a government memorandum. Woodward is not an analyst and doesn’t pretend to be. He provides glorious anecdotes, but he obfuscates his sources and misuses quotation marks. He is no judge of character or capability, turning the senile CIA Director William Casey into a strategic genius in “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987,” and actually presenting President George Bush as a genuine leader and commander in chief in “Bush at War.” Woodward is typically kind to the people who give him long interviews and he can be exceedingly mean to those officials who don’t. Ask Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
But Woodward does have access, including access to those people who rarely speak on the record to journalists. In his excellent book, “The Brethern,” (written with Scott Armstrong), he got Justice Potter Stewart to discuss the machinations of the Supreme Court. In “The Commanders,” he got the chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Colin Powell, to reveal many secrets from George H.W. Bush’s administration. And in “Obama’s Wars,” he had access to virtually all the key players, who revealed a startling lack of wisdom, vision and leadership. Woodward demonstrates the dysfunctional nature of the entire national security bureaucracy and, intentionally or unintentionally, makes a good case for why we should have gotten out of Afghanistan yesterday.
Of course, Woodward has his critics, who cavil about his “gossip mongering,” ignoring the sensitive information that appears in the book. Johns Hopkins University Professor of strategic studies Eliot Cohen virtually accuses Woodward of treason for providing information that will help such enemies as Taliban leader Mohammad Omar and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Cohen is an armchair warrior who has defended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his op-ed appeared in the pro-war Washington Post. But even Boston University Professor of history and international relations Andrew Bacevich, who opposes both wars, dismisses the book as gossip mongering and accuses Woodward of titillating and not informing. Both are wrong.
We know that President Obama has studied the lessons of the Vietnam and presumably recognizes Afghanistan as a similar briar patch. We can only hope that he remembers George Santayana’s observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”