Woodward's Book on Obama and Afghanistan

Bob Woodward's book on the division between Obama and his advisors on the war in Afghanistan is making big news. Republicans hope they can play it up and gain votes in November. Sample over-the-top headline: The Guardian, which proclaims " Obama Presidency hobbled by discord."

The Obama presidency is hobbled by discord and mutual contempt among its senior policy-makers and top generals according to a new book which is likely to damage the administration in November's congressional elections and undermine its efforts in Afghanistan.

The book, Obama's Wars, by the veteran investigative journalist Bob Woodward, is out on Monday, but extracts published overnight by the Washington Post and the New York Times make it clear that it will hurt the administration in the runup to mid-term elections, in which Democrats are already struggling and in which they are expected to lose control of the House of Representatives.

I hope that was written by a Guardian opinion writer rather than a news journalist, because the conclusions it draws are anything but "clear" and "likely." The WaPo excerpt of the book is here. The White House says it's pleased with the book.

Another passage causing discussion:

During an interview with Woodward in July, the president said, "We can absorb a terrorist attack. We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger."

Slate's John Dickerson asked a White House official who was familiar with the interview what Obama meant:

The president was talking with Woodward about the national-security threats he faced upon becoming president—the possible dangers and the fact that the terrorists had to be right only once, whereas the president and his team had to be right every time.

This led the president to talk about the need to prioritize. Objectively, the president said, you would want to be able to stop every attack, but a president has to prioritize. So what does the president put at the top of the danger list? A nuclear weapon or a weapon of mass destruction. Why? Because—and here's where the quote in question comes in—as bad as 9/11 was, the United States was not crippled. A nuclear attack or weapon of mass destruction, however, would be a "game changer," to use a popular cliché.

What else is in the book besides the discord? From the Times:

Beyond the internal battles, the book offers fresh disclosures on the nation’s continuing battle with terrorists. It reports that the C.I.A. has a 3,000-man “covert army” in Afghanistan called the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, or C.T.P.T., mostly Afghans who capture and kill Taliban fighters and seek support in tribal areas. Past news accounts have reported that the C.I.A. has a number of militias, including one trained on one of its compounds, but not the size of the covert army.

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    Oh Bob, Bob, Bob - always with the secret meetings (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by Ellie on Wed Sep 22, 2010 at 10:28:43 PM EST
    Here's where GWB got his Wood on the InnerNetz on on April 19, 2004. On the issue of Iraq endangering the political fortunes of one GW Bush ...

    (Larry) KING: How volatile [is the Iraq war for GWB] for this election?

    (Bob) WOODWARD: Very volatile.

    KING: Worst you've seen?

    WOODWARD: You don't know what's going to happen. But this is, if you push or try push toward the question of who is George Bush, this decision to undertake this war is the most defining characteristic of him. Everyone I've interviewed agrees he was passionate, he was hands-on, he was committed, and the problem is, he may have been wrong.

    KING: History is going to know that. We don't.

    WOODWARD: And as the president said, "We don't know. We'll all be dead."

    KING: Great line. Thanks, Bob. See you again Friday. [April 23, 2004] We've just scratched the surface. "Plan of Attack" is published by [blah blah blah]

    King and Woodward were like a couple of awestruck fanboiz, gushing over the wisdom that oozed forth in private audiences with Deep Thoughtz during this deeply troublesome time between golfing, fishing and pseudo-puttering at the sham-ranch.

    They out-gushed what might have occurred had JMKeynes' spinning grave turbo-drilled its way straight through the planet and into a BP-level disaster, instead of the trajectory it took. (It shot clear through the atmosphere and was rediscovered as a mysterious presence on the farside of Pluto, the rapidly demoted former planet named for the ruler of Hades, shady backroom fraudsters and obscene riches.)  

    Of course, Keynes' short term view was that There is no harm in being sometimes wrong- especially if one is promptly found out.. But hey, if virtually the entire world couldn't convince the Feckin' Eedge in Chief to stay away from that powder keg with his new Fisher Price blow torch, why would the words of one more dead ender matter?

    (And since we're in the neighbourhood, d'ja know that Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone? Keynes did but our annointed leaders keep stalling in that fun strip between most wickedest and greatest good.)

    Dissension in the White House?! (5.00 / 3) (#4)
    by gyrfalcon on Wed Sep 22, 2010 at 11:41:15 PM EST
    I'm shocked, shocked, I say. <yawn>

    Is that a bad thing? (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by jbindc on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 11:40:04 AM EST
    I hope there's ALWAYS dissension in the WH.  I want people to challenge the president - whomever that may be.  I always want someone asking questions like, "Is this a good idea?"

    I don't think there should be (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 12:07:23 PM EST
    dissension that equates to undermining the defined mission once the mission has been set, that was taking place previously between Eikenberry, Holbrooke, and McChrystal and the President should have shut that down immediately.  When distilling a mission plan though, I expect there to be dissent.  I expect a lot of discussions and even heated discussions when human lives are at stake.

    Well it's good to find out (5.00 / 2) (#13)
    by brodie on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 12:05:45 PM EST
    there isn't 100% groupthink in this WH over something as important as war.  Iirc, groupthink, and strongly discouraging dissent, was what got that cowboy Lyndon into some difficulty in VN.

    There had better darn well be some people in a Dem WH saying No to war or to endless unnecessary ones.  Especially with this president who seems a bit cowed by the military brass and all their fruit salad on their chests.

    As Pres Kennedy quickly learned, they can be wrong, stupid, and even dangerous in their recommendations and conduct, and always need to be watched and kept on a short leash lest they begin treating the CinC as one of their junior subordinate officers.


    So wait (5.00 / 2) (#5)
    by Socraticsilence on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 12:05:28 AM EST
    the big deal is that the White House had a debate about the Afghanistan strategy instead of simply having the Commander in Chief listen to his gut- and this is a bad thing how?

    I ask myself (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 12:50:21 AM EST
    At what time when we were prosecuting what war effort was there not discord?  Should a democracy ever be able to prosecute any war effort without discord?  I would think that when death of troops and bystander civilians being killed is involved, a little discord at times is called for and the lack of it should be feared.  Bush squashed anyone who disagreed with him about Iraq, look where that got us and him and how many thousands of Iraqi civilians.

    Take issue with "bystander civilians" (none / 0) (#18)
    by BobTinKY on Fri Sep 24, 2010 at 11:33:18 AM EST
    In Afghanistan and Iraq these civilians are hardly bystanders.  They are at home.  Our troops are the interlopers.  

    I don't know about that. (5.00 / 3) (#7)
    by lentinel on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 04:20:28 AM EST
    "...as bad as 9/11 was, the United States was not crippled."

    To say that the U.S. was not crippled by it is insane.
    It changed everything. We started two senseless wars using 9/11 as a rationale. We're still spending two billion dollars a week of money we don't have on the wars.

    Our civil liberties were eroded. Our Constitution has been eviscerated. We actually had public officials telling us to protect ourselves from biological warfare by using plastic and duct tape.

    That aside: I lived near Canal Street in NYC on that day.
    The air was foul and remained so for months. Who even knows how toxic it was. Our EPA lied to us.

    There were no cell phones.
    Land lines worked, but it was very difficult to reach loved ones.
    The Subways ceased working. Traffic lights didn't work. There were no police anywhere.

    The fire department was revealed to have been supplied with defective equipment.

    Giuliani, heralded as some kind of Knight in Shining Armor, was nowhere to be seen.

    The government, both Federal and Local, was revealed to be an entity which is totally incapable of coping with disaster. In my opinion, it was also revealed to be an entity that cares little for the people.

    Bob Woodward is D.C.'s official stenographer (none / 0) (#1)
    by andgarden on Wed Sep 22, 2010 at 08:39:39 PM EST
    Joan Didion (sorry about the paywall):

    The informant who talks to Mr. Woodward . . . knows that his or her testimony will be not only respected but burnished into the inside story, which is why so many people on the inside, notably those who consider themselves the professionals or managers of the process--assistant secretaries, deputy advisers, players of the game, aides who intend to survive past the tenure of the patron they are prepared to portray as hapless-- do want to talk to him.

    Petraeus on Afghanistan (none / 0) (#2)
    by MO Blue on Wed Sep 22, 2010 at 08:58:36 PM EST
    President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.
    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."

    This (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by lentinel on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 04:26:18 AM EST
    assessment by Patraeus, recently appointed by Obama, is the same as the one given by the reviled Mr. McCain.

    If Petraeus gets his way, (none / 0) (#10)
    by MO Blue on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 08:58:21 AM EST
    there will be no draw down of troops next year. He and other military commanders are lobbying hard for an endless war there.

    That's when you know you are the agressor (none / 0) (#19)
    by BobTinKY on Fri Sep 24, 2010 at 11:37:09 AM EST
    From the aggressor's standpoint the war can never end.  Having invaded the object is to hold what you have taken.  In the face of native resentment and anger and opposition, that requires you remain ever vigilant and ever at war with the native population.

    From the persepctive of the invaded, the war has a definte and objective end.  When the invaders are thrown out.

    We need to leave now.


    The only thing about Obama that I worry about (none / 0) (#9)
    by Slado on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 08:32:19 AM EST
    is how this book seems to imply that his rhetoric on Afghanistan didn't match his true feelings.

    If he thinks we can't win in Afghanistan, that he only has two years, that he'll lose the Democratic party on and on then why the hell did he send more troops?  If he really believed in the mission then I support him.  If he really didn't believe in the mission and said we must cut our losses then I support him.  I don't agree but he knows more then me and if his heart isn't in it we shouldn't be there.

    Say what you will about Bush.  He believed in the mission and didn't send our troops into what he thought was a un-winnable war.

    If it's un-winnable and the mission is to let a few hundred young women and men die every year so we don't find out what happens next then no thank you.   Leave.

    I'd rather keep tabs on the Taliban/Al Qaeda and move in when we have to then fight over meaningless territory and try to rebuild a country that doesn't want to be rebuilt.

    I'd rather (none / 0) (#11)
    by CST on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 09:33:56 AM EST
    have a president that's realistic about the situation at hand, including what is possible to achieve and what the consequences of that achievement will be.  Someone who will do what he thinks is necessary to get the best possible outcome, but doesn't have his head in the clouds about what that is.  Bush might have believed in the mission, but he was completely wrong about it, and believed blindly.  For me, there's no comfort in knowing that he that.  That's a fairly dangerous mentality.

    Whether or not Obama has the "correct" mission for Afghanistan or not is something I don't know.  But I certainly don't consider it a bad thing that making that decision wasn't easy, or that the possibillity of failure was considered.  You can't always predict the future, but you can plan for alternative outcomes.


    I would as well (none / 0) (#15)
    by Slado on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 12:14:01 PM EST
    thats not my point.

    My point is why escalate an "unwinnable" war?  

    We've sent over more troops knowing they would die if we sent them there and we're going to leave in 2 years because we can't win.

    Makes perfect sense.  I don't care how smart you think you are, how nuanced etc... those are all great and important but if he doesn't want to win and doesn't think we can win why send more young men and women over there to die just to fulfill a campaign promise.


    I don't think (none / 0) (#17)
    by CST on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 01:10:29 PM EST
    we're dealing with traditional definitions of "win" and "lose" here.  You do it because you think the progress is worth the cost.  Wherever it is that that progress leaves you.

    On something like war (none / 0) (#16)
    by brodie on Thu Sep 23, 2010 at 12:22:54 PM EST
    and whether to continue or escalate it, you certainly need someone in the WH at the top who's constantly re-evaluating the situation, as opposed to the simple-minded manichean types who make the initial decision then do not want to be bothered to go back and revisit the wisdom of the whole thing (LBJ-VN, HST-SK, GWB-Iraq).

    The Afghan situation is shaping up to be a showdown crisis point for Obama next summer, but it will take more cojones than he's shown so far with the military leadership to prevail over the very strong-willed Petraeus and probably a more conservative-Repub Congress which will be shouting loudly about not allowing Al Qaeda and the terrorists to win with a US withdrawal.

    Not sure at all Obama is up to the challenge.  And I'm not sure how helpful or loyal someone like DefSec Gates will be.  Kennedy had the loyal and forceful McNamara to help announce the non-combat/withdrawal VN policy for JFK, but Gates strikes me as much more independent minded.