We know the endpoint of the story: another bestseller for Bob Woodward, in this case about a president sandbagged by his own high command and administration officials at one another’s throats over an inherited war gone wrong. But where did the story actually begin? Well, here’s the strange thing: in a sense, Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, which focuses heavily on an administration review of Afghan war policy in the fall of 2009, begins with… Woodward. Of course – thank heavens for American media amnesia – amid all the attention his book is getting, no one seems to recall that part of the tale.
Here it is: President Obama got sandbagged by the leaked release of what became known as “the McChrystal plan,” a call by his war commander in the field Gen. Stanley McChrystal (and assumedly the man above him, then-Centcom Commander General David Petraeus) for a 40,000-troop counterinsurgency “surge.” As it happened, Bob Woodward, Washington Post reporter, not bestselling book writer, was assumedly the recipient of that judiciously leaked plan from a still-unknown figure, generally suspected of being in or close to the military. On Sept. 21, 2009, Woodward was the one who then framed the story, writing the first stern front-page piece about the needs of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Its headline laid out, from that moment on, the president’s options: “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure’” And its first paragraph went this way: “The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict ‘will likely result in failure,’ according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.”
The frustration of a commander-in-chief backed into a corner by his own generals, the angry backbiting Woodward reportedly reveals in his book, all of it was, at least in part, a product of that leak and how it played out. In other words, looked at a certain way, Woodward facilitated the manufacture of the subject for his own bestseller. A nifty trick for Washington’s leading stenographer.
The set of leaks – how appropriate for Woodward – that were the drumbeat of publicity for the new book over the last week also offered a classic outline of just how limited inside-the-Beltway policy options invariably turn out to be (no matter how fierce the debate about them). As one Washington Post piece put it: “[T]he only options that were seriously considered in the White House involved 30,000 to 40,000 more troops.” All in all, it’s a striking example of how the system really works, of how incestuously and narrowly – to cite the title of Andrew Bacevich’s bestselling new book – Washington rules. Tom
Prisoners of War
Bob Woodward and all the president’s men (2010 edition)
by Andrew J. Bacevich
Once a serious journalist, the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward now makes a very fine living as chief gossip-monger of the governing class. Early on in his career, along with Carl Bernstein, his partner at the time, Woodward confronted power. Today, by relentlessly exalting Washington trivia, he flatters power. His reporting does not inform. It titillates.
A new Woodward book, Obama’s Wars, is a guaranteed blockbuster. It’s out this week, already causing a stir, and guaranteed to be forgotten the week after dropping off the bestseller lists. For good reason: when it comes to substance, any book written by Woodward has about as much heft as the latest potboiler penned by the likes of James Patterson or Tom Clancy.
Back in 2002, for example, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Woodward treated us to Bush at War. Based on interviews with unidentified officials close to President George W. Bush, the book offered a portrait of the president-as-resolute-war-leader that put him in a league with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But the book’s real juice came from what it revealed about events behind the scenes. “Bush’s war cabinet is riven with feuding,” reported the Times of London, which credited Woodward with revealing “the furious arguments and personal animosity” that divided Bush’s lieutenants.
Of course, the problem with the Bush administration wasn’t that folks on the inside didn’t play nice with one another. No, the problem was that the president and his inner circle committed a long series of catastrophic errors that produced an unnecessary and grotesquely mismanaged war. That war has cost the country dearly – although the people who engineered that catastrophe, many of them having pocketed handsome advances on their forthcoming memoirs, continue to manage quite well, thank you.
To judge by the publicity blitzkrieg announcing the arrival of Obama’s Wars in your local bookstore, the big news out of Washington is that, even today, politics there remains an intensely competitive sport, with the participants, whether in anger or frustration, sometimes speaking ill of one another.
Essentially, news reports indicate, Woodward has updated his script from 2002. The characters have different names, but the plot remains the same. Talk about jumping the shark.
So we learn that Obama political adviser David Axelrod doesn’t fully trust Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. National security adviser James Jones, a retired Marine general, doesn’t much care for the likes of Axelrod, and will say so behind his back. Almost everyone thinks Richard Holbrooke, chief State Department impresario of the AfPak portfolio, is a jerk. And – stop the presses – when under the influence of alcohol, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, is alleged to use the word “f**ked.” These are the sort of shocking revelations that make you a headliner on the Sunday morning talk shows.
Based on what we have learned so far from those select few provided with advance copies of the book – mostly reporters for the Post and the New York Times who, for whatever reason, seem happy to serve as its shills – Obama’s Wars contains hints of another story, the significance of which seems to have eluded Woodward.
The theme of that story is not whether Dick likes Jane, but whether the Constitution remains an operative document. The Constitution explicitly assigns to the president the role of commander in chief. Responsibility for the direction of American wars rests with him. According to the principle of civilian control, senior military officers advise and execute, but it’s the president who decides. That’s the theory, at least. Reality turns out to be considerably different and, to be kind about it, more complicated.
Obama’s Wars reportedly contains this comment by President Obama to Secretary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates regarding Afghanistan: “I’m not doing 10 years… I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”
Aren’t you, Mr. President? Don’t be so sure.
Obama’s Wars also affirms what we already suspected about the decision-making process that led up to the president’s announcement at West Point in December 2009 to prolong and escalate the war. Bluntly put, the Pentagon gamed the process to exclude any possibility of Obama rendering a decision not to its liking.
Pick your surge: 20,000 troops? Or 30,000 troops? Or 40,000 troops? Only the most powerful man in the world – or Goldilocks contemplating three bowls of porridge – could handle a decision like that. Even as Obama opted for the middle course, the real decision had already been made elsewhere by others: the war in Afghanistan would expand and continue.
And then there’s this from the estimable Gen. David Petraeus: “I don’t think you win this war,” Woodward quotes the field commander as saying. “I think you keep fighting. … This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
Here we confront a series of questions to which Woodward (not to mention the rest of Washington) remains steadfastly oblivious. Why fight a war that even the general in charge says can’t be won? What will the perpetuation of this conflict cost? Who will it benefit? Does the ostensibly most powerful nation in the world have no choice but to wage permanent war? Are there no alternatives? Can Obama shut down an unwinnable war now about to enter its tenth year? Or is he – along with the rest of us – a prisoner of war?
President Obama has repeatedly stated that in July 2011 a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will commence. No one quite knows exactly what that means. Will the withdrawal be symbolic? Gen. Petraeus has already made it abundantly clear that he will entertain nothing more. Or will July signal that the Afghan War – and by extension the Global War on Terror launched nine years ago – is finally coming to an end?
Between now and next summer attentive Americans will learn much about how national security policy is actually formulated and who is really in charge. Just don’t expect Bob Woodward to offer any enlightenment on the subject.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War.
Copyright 2010 Andrew J. Bacevich