All Washington is atwitter: the grand old man of the Court Historians, Bob Woodward, has come out with yet another “book” – i.e. another long-winded press release on behalf of the Powers That Be – explaining, “reporting,” and rationalizing the war policies of the current regime. Oh, glory be! Drop everything and run to the nearest bookstore – or just go online and download the excerpts at the Washington Post‘s incredibly cumbersome web site, loaded down with so many ads, pop-ups, and pop-outs that one imagines his next book will be out before your computer stops grinding.
Chapter One ought to have been titled “The Generals Made Me Do It.” Poor President Obama: he’s the most powerful man on earth, and yet he can’t get past his own generals. When he asked them for “options” in Afghanistan, they came up with what was essentially a single option: 40,000 more troops and a counterinsurgency that would last until Hell (or Afghanistan) froze over. The President was “frustrated,” and even “impatient” – “I need a plan, a plan, my kingdom for a plan that will get me out of this box!” Okay, so that’s not a direct quote, but you get the idea.
Lacking such a plan, Obama drew up a document resembling a “contract,” which stated the terms and conditions under which he’d go along with the escalation of the war. Key to this was the much-vaunted 2011 “withdrawal” date, i.e. the date we would supposedly start “downsizing” our footprint and begin the “training” phase that would get us the heck out of there, and get Obama out of the hot water he’s increasingly in with his Democratic base.
What’s interesting, here, is that our commander-in-chief automatically took one option – a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, followed by withdrawal – off the table. It is not even mentioned as a possibility, however distant. This is not surprising, given the Washington consensus, which is that the Empire never stops expanding, but only pauses once in a while to catch its breath.
Even less surprising is that the President is portrayed as an empty shell, a political creature who cares not one whit about the moral and ideological aspects of the momentous decision he is about to make, but only about what kind of electoral advantage (or disadvantage) a given policy option promises. Here is a hollow man, without a moral or ideational core, an empty vessel waiting to be filled by others – who are more than ready to oblige.
Chapter Two might be called “Good Cop, Bad Cop,” with the former being Vice President Joe Biden, and the latter the collective voice of the generals. The Biden plan – start training the Afghan army, and then get the heck out – is well-known, so it’s not necessary to go into the operational details here. Suffice to say it was a mirage, never meant to be taken seriously, and put up there, I would argue, merely to salvage the remnants of Obama’s conscience. The assumption being he has a conscience – which, I believe, is entirely unwarranted.
When a member of the President’s national security staff makes the argument, in the final meeting, that conditions in July, 2011, aren’t going to be much different in Afghanistan than they are today – “We want to get from here to there, but, my God, how in hell are we going to do this?” – the President replies:
“’Yeah,’ the president said graciously, indicating that he did not disagree. ‘Thanks for being candid. It can’t be easy for you to come in here and tell me that. Basically, we’re going to have to execute our heart out to make this work.’”
Listen to the cold, hard, bureaucratic language of a self-proclaimed “pragmatist”: execute. Yeah, Mr. President, you got that one right.
The account of the final meeting, in which the President gives the military everything they want – short of ten thousand troops who will be on their way a few months later – is almost comic, in a Seinfeldian kind of way. There is President Obama, sternly demanding that everyone in the room sign on to the agreement, and not come out in public saying something else. This ultimatum is ostensibly directed at the generals, but they just sit there smiling, luxuriating in their victory, and wondering, like Petraeus, why he didn’t save them the trouble and agree to 30,000 more troops from the start. The anti-escalation faction, small and ineffectual as it is, is the real target of this presidential admonition, although Woodward doesn’t say this: he simply reports what happened. In short, the President was saying “Keep your big mouth shut, Joe – I beat you fair and square in the primaries, and you’re deluded if you think you’ll get a second chance.”
Poor Joe: his job is to go on the Rachel Maddow show and patiently explain to the base – or what’s left of it – why the escalation of the war is really a necessary prelude paving the way for complete withdrawal. Indeed, it sounds very much like he was practicing for that role when he pipes up at the end and says:
“As I see it, this is not a negotiation. . . . I view this as an order from the commander in chief. This was a mission change. If this is not perceived as a change in mission, we cannot justify why we spent months working on this.”
He almost seems to be talking to himself, justifying in his own mind what was certainly a negotiation with the Pentagon – with the President in the position of taking orders rather than giving them.
A “mission change” – yeah, that‘s the ticket! He thinks he can sell that one:
“We can’t lose sight of Pakistan and stability there. The way I understand this, Afghanistan is a means to accomplish our top mission, which is to kill al-Qaeda and secure Pakistan’s nukes. We must be making progress separately against al-Qaeda and separately in Pakistan.”
Woodward provides no visuals, but his readers can clearly see Biden smiling, like a man who’s rarely happy unless he’s hearing the sound of his own voice.
Petraeus, for his part, doesn’t waste any time savoring his victory: he’s too busy trying to figure out how “time could be added to the clock,” and later muses: “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
He’s right, of course. The idea that the US can clear, hold, and build a US client state in Afghanistan capable of standing on its own, militarily, is a social engineering project on a mind-boggling scale. It is also a pipe dream, as the Soviets discovered. The British, too. Yet the lessons of the past are lost on our so-called “progressives,” who like to think they are making history rather than being ruled by it. They really believe they can remake a society, any society, be it Afghan or American, if only they “execute” their hearts out.
Andrew Bacevich, whose excellent new book I’m reading, is convinced, like Woodward, that the President doesn’t really believe in the Afghan mission, and that’s true to a certain extent – but not in the way Bacevich seems to mean it. As a self-described “pragmatist,” the President doesn’t really believe in anything except “what works.” Which means doing whatever he can get away with without paying too high a political price.
I have to say, finally, that the most disturbing aspect of Woodward’s account, so far, is the extent to which Obama is intimidated by the military, and the alarming power of Gen. Petraeus as he openly thumbs his nose at the chief executive. Both Petraeus and McChrystal went public demanding 40,000 more troops before the decision was even made: if that isn’t insubordination worthy of firing, then what is?
The President had already ceded his authority to the generals before the “debate” was even begun: the rest was merely filling in the details of his capitulation. The issue was trenchantly summarized by Army Col. John Tien at the final meeting of Obama’s national security inner council:
“Mr. President, I don’t see how you can defy your military chain here. We kind of are where we are. Because if you tell General McChrystal ‘I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I’ve chosen to do something else,’ you’re going to probably have to replace him. You can’t tell him, ‘Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.’ And then where does that stop?”
Although Col. Tien is trained not to ask such questions, what I want to know is: where does the power of the Pentagon stop?
This is the most ominous development, among many, of the post-9/11 political atmosphere: the rise of the generals as an almost co-equal force with the President. The elevation of the Pentagon was the logical outgrowth of the “war on terrorism” and the Bushian magnification of the president’s wartime powers. If we think of the presidential persona as invested with a trinity of identities – citizen, chief executive, and commander-in-chief – it’s clear that the first has been obliterated since at least the advent of the cold war, and the second has been subordinated to the third since 9/11. With Congress gone A.W.O.L. on foreign policy, it’s only natural that the Pentagon would replace the legislative branch.
A stronger chief executive could challenge and reverse this militarist trend: unfortunately, Obama is not up to the task. Indeed, if Woodward’s portrait of the President is even half accurate, we haven’t seen such a weak chief executive since the days of James Buchanan.