Alex Massie

Obama vs Petraeus vs Bob Woodward

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Bob Woodward is the best (and perhaps nastiest) blackmailer in Washington. Sure, you don't have to co-operate with him but you know what will happen if you don't. Those who talk to Woodward are always treated kindly by the great stenographer; those who decline his advances invariably become the villains.

Each time this happens it becomes easier for Woodward to persuade people to talk to him for his next book. And since his slabby books (really, like Thomas Friedman's works they merit being called "tomes") have become some kind of quasi-official instant history it's always necessary to work out who has been talking and who has not and read between the lines* accordingly.

His latest, Obama's Wars, is going to cause trouble. I suspect some folk will have a field day with Obama's observation that "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." Never mind that this is entirely true and even sensible.

More troublingly, Woodward's book - at least according to the reports published by the New York Times and the Washington Post - depicts an administration at war with itself over Afghanistan policy and a President so keenly aware of the paucity of attractive options that one gets the feeling - from these snippets anyway - that he's grimly aware that Afghanistan could yet dominate his presidency and that this is one thing he's all but desperate to avoid. No-one likes any of the plans put forward and no-one much likes the plan we have either..  Thus:

"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."

Obama rejected the military's request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. "I'm not doing 10 years," he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."

[...] In a dramatic scene at the White House on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009, Obama summoned the national security team to outline his decision and distribute his six-page terms sheet. He went around the room, one by one, asking each participant whether he or she had any objections - to "say so now," Woodward reports.

The document - a copy of which is reprinted in the book - took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy's objectives, what the military was not supposed to do. The president went into detail, according to Woodward, to make sure that the military wouldn't attempt to expand the mission.

[...]The president is quoted as telling Mullen, Petraeus and Gates: "In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, 'We're doing fine, Mr. President, but we'd be better if we just do more.' We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] . . . unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011."

Petraeus took Obama's decision as a personal repudiation, Woodward writes. Petraeus continued to believe that a "protect-the-Afghan-people" counterinsurgency was the best plan. When the president tapped Petraeus this year to replace McChrystal as the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus found himself in charge of making Obama's more limited strategy a success.

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."

[...]Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn't think about the Afghan war in the "classic" terms of the United States winning or losing. "I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?"

That's not an ignoble aspiration but nor is it the kind of thing politicians can acknowledge publicly. Which leaves us in our present unsatisfactory position, stuck half-way up a hill with no easy way of reaching the summit or returning to the plains below.

*I suspect this new Woodward book is likely to be much more sympathetic to the military than the White House civilian staff, not least because Woodward has relationships with key Pentagon personnel that stretch back years and decades. (Bob Gates will probably look good too.) Familiarity also brings friendly-treatment. Though, as Dan Drezner says, perhaps Woodward is past-his-prime too now that the tick-tock of internal disagreement is such a staple part of political reporting.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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