Foreign Policy Blogs

Bob Woodward's 'Obama's War' Part One: Waverer-in-Chief?


Well, I just finished the 1st of Bob Woodward’s three-part series ‘Obama’s War’ in the Washington Post and came away keying a different aspect than Woodward and likely the Obama administration wanted to get across. Woodward’s main theme in this first section is that the high brass of the US military (Mullen, McChrystal, Petraeus) failed to give him as many options for an Afghanistan strategy as he requested. In other words, they pigeon-held the President into an escalation. The evidence provided by Woodward definitely leads us to believe that this indeed did occur to an extent. The President is the ultimate national security decision maker and needs to be provided with as many viable options for any strategic situation as possible. That being said they also need to be clear to the President how they view each strategies likely outcome: i.e. ‘We could do a light footprint strategy Mr. President, but that would drastically increase the chances of a Taliban takeover of southern Afghanistan….’.

The military-civilian relationship, or lack there of, is clearly a central theme to Woodward’s first piece, but what jumped out at me from the piece was how focused President Obama seemed to be on just getting out of Afghanistan. Obviously, it can be argued that the US should be lessening our footprint in Afghanistan and that this would be in our national security interest, but it is disconcerting to have a President push us further into a conflict that he appears to desperately want to end. Remember, during Obama’s presidential campaign, Afghanistan was ‘necessary war’ that was ‘underfunded, under resourced’ and ‘neglected’. Here are some of the quotes from the piece where the President appears to show wavering on his commitment to fight in Afghanistan (there are many others I could have also chosen):

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” he said. “Everything that we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint.”

But even as he laid out how he planned to explain his choice to send 30,000 more troops, he added a caution. “There’s a chance the decision could change,” he said. “We may need another speech.”

Under the redefined mission, Obama told Gates, the best I can do is 30,000. “This is what I’m willing to take on, politically,” the president said.

“I’ve got a request for 4,500 enablers sitting on my desk,” Gates said. “And I’d like to have another 10 percent that I can send in, enablers or forces, if I need them.”

“Bob,” Obama said, “30,000 plus 4,500 plus 10 percent of 30,000 is” – he had already done the math – “37,500.” Sounding like an auctioneer, he added, “I’m at 30,000.”

Obama had never been quite so definitive or abrupt with Gates.

“I will give you some latitude within your 10 percentage points,” Obama said, but under exceptional circumstances only.

“Can you support this?” Obama asked Gates. “Because if the answer is no, I understand it and I’ll be happy to just authorize another 10,000 troops, and we can continue to go as we are and train the Afghan national force and just hope for the best.”

“Hope for the best.” The condescending words hung in the air.

And more excerpts from the Wall Street Journal:

According to Woodward’s meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives.

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. “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.”

The president concluded from the start that “I have two years with the public on this” and pressed advisers for ways to avoid a big escalation, the book says. “I want an exit strategy,” he implored at one meeting. Privately, he told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

Contrast these words from Obama with this national security speech Obama made during his presidential campaign:

Our troops and our NATO allies are performing heroically in Afghanistan, but I have argued for years that we lack the resources to finish the job because of our commitment to Iraq. That’s what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said earlier this month. And that’s why, as President, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.

….The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring, because the security of Afghanistan and the United States is shared.

The differences in commitment between President Obama and candidate Obama are stark. The President’s final decision to send a middle ground additional 30,000 troops with a year and half public timetable also appear to be chosen strategically arbitrarily, with domestic politics (Midterms, Reelection, public support) playing a major role. We should not be surprised or even begrudge (Stephen Biddle has a solid take on this) a President inputting his domestic political agenda and hopes for reelection into a decision like this, as that is only natural and has happened throughout history. Nevertheless, the extent that this drives the strategy chosen does matter if it’s too highly weighted on the domestic political side.

President Obama comes across deliberative, cerebral, and forward thinking in Woodward’s piece, all things we want in our nation’s leader, but I still feel uneasy about Obama’s commitment to his decision. He spent his whole campaign hammering the fact that Afghanistan was the war worth fighting and that it could be won with the right strategy and resources, but the man portrayed in this article does not come across as someone who still believes in this. The last thing we need is to get ourselves deeper into a protracted, costly war with a leader not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to bring about a successful outcome. When President Obama announced his decision on the Afghan surge, he had my support and still does, but my confidence is shaken when I hear that in many ways he made this decision ‘hoping for the best’. We need a Commander-in-Chief, not a Politician-in-Chief or Waverer-in-Chief.

Woodward still has 2 more sections to come so this story and my thoughts could change.