Soon after his historic victory over John McCain, Barack Obama was ushered into a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) located deep inside the Federal building in Chicago to receive his first top-secret intelligence briefing as President-elect. According to Bob Woodward, the Watergate icon and Washington journalism grandee, the space was designed to prevent eavesdropping and thus ‘unusually small . . . windowless and confining, even claustrophobic’.
The briefing by Mike McConnell, then Director of National Intelligence, revealed little information that Obama — or any reader of Woodward’s Obama’s Wars — could not have found in a news- paper in November 2008: the dangers posed by North Korean nuclear weapons and potential Iranian ones; advances in cyberterrorism; and the growing strength of the Taliban inside Pakistan.
But this scene is nonetheless revealing, for the narrow, suffocating atmosphere in the SCIF briefing room mirrors perfectly the scope and tone of Woodward’s ‘inside’ account of Obama’s meandering, year-long path to escalating the war in Afghanistan. Pity the reader trapped in such a room for nearly 400 pages — but truly lament the soldier vaulted to his or her death or maiming on the hot, dry air of the national security/terror rhetoric so excruciatingly reconstructed by America’s most famous investigative reporter.
The difficulty in parsing Woodward’s account of the debate between the White House and the Pentagon over US policy in Afghanistan stems not only from its punishing, mind-numbing prose. Woodward is well known for relying on ‘background’ interviews in which his sources provide information under cover of anonymity.
In a Note to Readers he writes:
I have attempted to preserve the language of the main characters and sources as much as possible, using their words even when they are not directly quoted, reflecting the flavor of their speech and attitudes.
Well, we don’t, but let’s assume for the moment that the storyline in Obama’s Wars is reasonably accurate: an inexperienced young president inherits George W. Bush’s Iraq disaster, while Afghanistan, thought by Obama to be the greater threat to American security, has gone shamefully neglected. Obama the cerebral lawyer engages his national security advisers in a wide- ranging examination of ‘options’ on Afghanistan that proceeds like a series of academic seminars. Meanwhile, canny generals and policy experts — who are even more expert in the art of bureaucratic warfare — manoeuvre Obama into a corner from which he is forced to up the military ante more than he might have liked. The great debate culminates in the President’s announcement, in a speech at West Point on 1 December 2009, that he will send 30,000 more troops to combat a terrorist ‘danger’ that ‘will only grow if the region slides backwards, and al’ Qa’eda can operate with impunity’.
Implicit in Woodward’s rendering of events is that a genuine airing of diverse opinions actually took place within the administration and that one side won the day. The winning team apparently included such liberal hawks and devotees of ‘counterinsurgency’ doctrine as General David Petraeus (co-author of the army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual and father of the Iraq ‘surge’) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Petraeus’s ‘primary insight,’ Woodward tells us,
was that the US could not kill its way out of [Iraq]. It had to protect and win over the population, living among them, providing security so that a stable and competent government could thrive. A new kind of soldier in the Petraeus mould had to be a social worker, urban planner, anthropologist and psychologist.
These propositions are dubious at best, but Obama never really challenges them, and neither does Woodward. The real winner of the ‘policy review’ is groupthink. We hardly meet anyone who disagrees with the premise that Afghanistan must be occupied and ‘stabilised’ — Iraq style — in order to protect freedom-loving Americans from terrorist attack. We hear from no one who thinks the Taliban’s violent campaign to overthrow the corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai and expel his American patrons has any justification whatsoever. And nowhere are we apprised of the very bright analysts — Edward Luttwak, Andrew Bacevich, Rory Stewart and William Polk, to name just four — who believe in varying degrees that American-style military occupation and counterinsurgency tactics are doomed to failure, ultimately counterproductive, and probably the surest way to strengthen the Taliban, destabilise Pakistan, and provoke more terrorist attacks against the West. The simple fact that most of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were Saudi is never mentioned in the book, while Woodward doesn’t seem to realise that terrorists, working alone or in small groups, can operate from almost anywhere.
‘Is there anybody who thinks we ought to leave Afghanistan?’ Obama asks at the 30 September meeting of his Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review, which was attended by ‘about 18 people’. Woodward reports:
Everyone in the room was quiet. They looked at him. No one said anything.
‘Okay,’ he said, ‘now that we’ve dispensed with that, let’s get on.’
And so they do, with only a feeble dissent presented by Vice-President Joe Biden, often sounding like a toothpaste pitchman, who advocates a policy named ‘counter- terrorism plus’ that would focus more resources to fighting al’ Qa’eda in Pakistan. Biden seems to be happy just to stay on the team and play house sceptic — he never raises withdrawal or troop cuts as an option or questions the basic premise of the Afghanistan policy — although Woodward uncritically relays State Department special envoy Richard Holbrooke’s witless comparison of the Vice-President to George Ball, the farsighted American diplomat who argued brilliantly against escalation in Vietnam within the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Eventually an argument does break out about whether to send to Afghanistan the 40,000 additional troops that Generals McChrystal and Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates say they want or the 30,000 that Obama feels are all that’s necessary to create, in Woodward’s words, ‘a surge intended to get the United States out’.
To the average reader, this argument may sound like an absurd contradiction — like Obama’s announcement of a troop withdrawal beginning in July 2011 during the same West Point speech in which he announced the 30,000 troop escalation. But ordinary citizens are so far removed from the conduct of US foreign policy that they can’t be expected to understand the bizarre language used in everyday conversation at the Pentagon or the White House.
This may be a blessing in disguise. Do we really want to hear the word ‘resource’ used as a noun and a verb and then transformed into gibberish? (‘A key component of resourcing is people,’ McChrystal tells the Senate Armed Services Committee during his lobbying campaign for escalation.) Does it mean anything that the administration’s goal in Afghanistan at a certain point shifts from ‘defeating’ the Taliban to ‘disrupting and degrading’ their insurgency? Can we make sense of such nonsensical writing as Woodward’s reiteration of Lt. General Douglas E. Lute’s reflections on America’s Iraq debacle:
The United Stat
es had stared failure in the eye in Iraq, and, for the moment, failure had blinked. Overall, the strategy that accompanied the 2007 troop surge seemed to be working as planned.
Was this Lute’s twisted analysis, or is it Woodward’s? The great reporter has said in an interview that his book is ‘politically neutral’ and that ‘I’m not taking a position for or against the war or Obama.’ Here Woodward places himself in the broad mainstream of Washington journalism, a world in which, as the essayist Walter Karp put it, ‘the press, strictly speaking, can scarcely be said to do anything. It does not act, it is acted upon.’
But Woodward most certainly views himself as an actor, a player on the great stage of power politics. Indeed, it’s the one thing that really seems to interest him in Obama’s Wars, for Woodward is at his best when he reports on the immense vanity of his subjects — their desperation to remain within the President’s radiant circle of power.
It is no surprise when, near the end of the book, Woodward relates the closing moments of his interview with Obama: ‘Sounds like you’ve got better sources than I do,’ says the President. ‘No sir,’ replies Woodward. Obama persists:
‘Have you ever thought of being the DNI director,’ he asked, laughing lightly. ‘Huh? Or CIA?’
I laughed as well.
For his part, Obama comes off in the book as being shallow, pedantic and somewhat cold. It does not seem to occur to Woodward that the king is a politician first and that his mantra of ‘faster in and faster out’ of Afghanistan has probably more to do with getting re-elected in 2012 than with any sane policy review.
Such blatant hedging, such tactical and political behaviour, elicits condescension from the generals — Petraeus finds it extraordinary that Obama would personally dictate orders, but he realises, according to Woodward, that the purpose ‘was not just to get clarity, but to show that the President was in control.’
In substance, however, Obama’s direct involvement hardly mattered, since, as Woodward notes, ‘the military was getting almost everything’ it wanted. Equivocation is contagious in such an atmosphere — although he’s happy with the 30,000 extra troops, Petraeus tells Woodward: ‘You have to recognise also that I don’t think you win this war.’ Nevertheless, ‘I think you keep fighting.’
So the killing goes on and on, with nearly every day bringing a new report of CIA drone bombs striking civilians, American soldiers accused of ‘killing Afghans for sport,’ Americans killing Pakistani soldiers by accident, Karzai’s and the Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s double-dealing and corruption, and brutal Taliban reprisals against American soldiers and Afghans alike.
If only Obama, instead of chatting up the likes of Bob Woodward, would read Point Omega, the new novel by Don DeLillo, in which a disillusioned ‘defense intellectual’ exiles himself to the Southwestern desert, after having participated in one too many doubletalk sessions about Iraq in the inner circle of the Pentagon.
‘War creates a closed world and not only for those in combat but for the plotters, the strategists,’ says DeLillo’s character Richard Elster to a would-be interviewer:
Except their war is acronyms, projections, contingencies, methodologies …. They become paralysed by the systems at their disposal. Their war is abstract. They think they’re sending an army into a place on a map.
Too bad for the Afghans — as well as the American and British grunts assigned to ‘protect’ them — that, as Elster says, ‘there were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create.’