The Woodward Revelations

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 22, 2010


Information regarding Bob Woodward’s new book about the Obama Administration’s deliberations on Afghanistan, and national security policy in general, are filtering through the Internet tubes. Some highlights from this story:

. . . most of the book centers on the strategy review, and the dissension, distrust and infighting that consumed Obama’s national security team as it was locked in a fierce and emotional struggle over the direction, goals, timetable, troop levels and the chances of success for a war that is almost certain to be one of the defining events of this presidency.

Obama is shown at odds with his uniformed military commanders, particularly Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command during the 2009 strategy review and now the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Woodward reveals their conflicts through detailed accounts of two dozen closed-door secret strategy sessions and nearly 40 private conversations between Obama and Cabinet officers, key aides and intelligence officials.

Tensions often turned personal. National security adviser James L. Jones privately referred to Obama’s political aides as “the water bugs,” the “Politburo,” the “Mafia,” or the “campaign set.” Petraeus, who felt shut out by the new administration, told an aide that he considered the president’s senior adviser David Axelrod to be “a complete spin doctor.”

During a flight in May, after a glass of wine, Petraeus told his own staffers that the administration was “[expletive] with the wrong guy.” Gates was tempted to walk out of an Oval Office meeting after being offended by comments made by deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon about a general not named in the book.

Suspicion lingered among some from the 2008 presidential campaign as well. When Obama floated the idea of naming Clinton to a high-profile post, Axelrod asked him, “How could you trust Hillary?”

Of course, it ought to go without saying that if these stories centered on the divisions within a Republican administration, the press would utterly have a field day with them, as would Democrats. We’ll see how the press treats this story now that the shoe is on the other foot. It is an important issue; to the extent that these divisions interfere with the making of policy, their revelation ought to be the source of serious concern.

Equally of concern is the fact that the President seems close-minded on the issue of Afghanistan, to the point where he resembles the caricature that was drawn up of George W. Bush:

The president is quoted as telling Mullen, Petraeus and Gates: “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.”

Petraeus took Obama’s decision as a personal repudiation, Woodward writes. Petraeus continued to believe that a “protect-the-Afghan-people” counterinsurgency was the best plan. When the president tapped Petraeus this year to replace McChrystal as the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus found himself in charge of making Obama’s more limited strategy a success.

Woodward quotes Petraeus as saying, “You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little bit like Iraq, actually. . . . Yes, there has been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”

Quite clearly, the President will not consider any changes in Afghan policy that may deepen involvement there, even if those changes may be necessary. This lack of adaptability in the Oval Office ought to worry people. It certainly worries me. But the President doesn’t seem to be driven primarily by geopolitical concerns in his dealings with Afghanistan, having admitted that he crafted his Afghan policy in the way that he did because he “can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.” To say the least, putting partisan political concerns ahead of national security concerns usually ends badly for the United States.

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