European monarchs of old had court portraitists. American presidencies have Bob Woodward. The purpose is similar: to immortalize the ruler at the height of his power. To show a forceful leader mastering a daunting problem with resolve, sobriety and dedication to the interests of his fellow citizens. This being America, the occasion has to be one of action and suspense. Bush the Younger seeking retribution for 9/11. Now Barack Obama exorcising the devils of Afghanistan.
A narrative account does have a few drawbacks. It cannot fix the image at a single moment that will last for eternity. However laudatory, the written account is liable to be viewed differently as time goes by. A picture wings the flying hour; a story is part of the flow of events. There is the further drawback that the chronicler may depict persons and things in ways that are not entirely complimentary to the main protagonist in the drama. Woodward's talents may be available for lease but they do not come with a money back guarantee. For the exchange currency is not hard cash but access. The White House gets surefire blockbuster publicity; Woodward gets to further enhance his standing as the ultimate insider in the world of political celebrity. The latter's value necessitates his presuming to keep a measure of distance as disinterested observer. That means doing an only modest amount of airbrushing of character and action. A further complication is that while the President is the patron, the commission is loosely written to allow the artist unmonitored access to other members of the court. Their vanities and ambitions are not identical with his.
In the light of the ensuing risks, why does Barack Obama enter into such a pact? Our celebrity culture provides part of the answer. Publicity is what it is all about - and Woodward assures that it will be favorable publicity, on the whole. A public figure whose meteoric rise is a testament to star power must be acutely sensitive to the imperative of how vital to success are mythic imagery and turns in the limelight. The stage lights have the special glow when energized by a bestselling insider account of high performance. The details of what is recounted is less important than the projection of the Oval Office's powerful, intoxicating atmosphere dominated by the commanding presence of the Chief Executive of the United States. That in itself blunts the reader's critical instincts and holds at bay skeptical impulses. Yes, lots of attention is given a few difficult moments and personality clashes. But that does little to detract from the overall positive impact.
Then there is the simple truth that Presidents want to celebrate themselves. They are the ultimate celebrity in a celebrity culture. They in fact feel proud of what they do and how they do it. They are not big on self-reflection which they see as a sign of weakness. Doubts and second thoughts are avoided as activities that can drain their sense of potency and competence crucial to the job. To hell with yesterday; today is where the action is and there is tomorrow's challenges in waiting. The past always can be spun; truth is ductile; reality is clay in my hands. A successful leader must never allow the future to be hostage to history - even yesterday's history. Except where history can be bent better to serve fresh exigencies - going forward. "How much time do you think you need, mr. Woodward?"
So what do we learn from Obama's War beyond the phenomenon of its being written? There are important revelations that instruct us as to how great matters of state are addressed in today's America. Most striking is that the process of deliberation and decision bears little resemblance to the exalted images that we hold as derivatives of uncritical popular history and hagiographic documentaries. The persons we see are not paragons of integrity devoted only to serving the commonweal by making the soundest decisions possible. They exhibit vanity, careerism, dogmatism and a readiness to skirt the standards of honest debate. They are very much political animals who keep their eyes on multiple arenas: the electorate, Congress, bureaucratic rivals, future histories of what transpires. Hence, the aggregate of their acts amounts to something well short of coherent, intellectually disciplined discourse. Applying academic models of a sound policy process only highlights how deeply flawed that real life process is
A few stand out because of their importance. First, one searches in vain for a clear, crisp statement of what the problem is. Sure, everyone agrees that preventing another 9/11 launched from Afghanistan is the cardinal concern. As soon as the discussion moves beyond that obvious worry, the fog sets in. There is no focused consideration of the priority that Afghanistan today deserves as the most likely origin of an attack on the United States. (Odds and probabilities - on anything - are never laid out. At their worst, deliberations have the odor of a frat bull session), Other serious concerns make an appearance, e.g. the security of Pakistani nukes, without rigorous examination of exactly how they may be related by what causal chains. The parts of the 'problem' understood as mountainous financial costs or political costs at home are accepted as legitimate factors by only a few of the participants; most cavalierly shrug off anything but the war itself. Diplomatic costs don't even make a cameo appearance - as if doing so would be a sign of deficient pro-activism and self confident prowess. This last defect is all the more glaring since the 'war on terror' in its varied aspects is supposedly global.
It turns out that the 'problem' for the participants is variations of the question: "what do we do next now that we're in this lousy situation where we nonetheless have compelling national interests?" For Obama, it's about finding a way to muddle through so that his administration and 2012 election hopes are not consumed by Afghanistan. Biden, Emanuel and Axelrod make that explicit in arguing against escalation. Hillary Clinton is gung-ho for pulling out all stops - an attitude based on no apparent strategic logic but rather some subconscious calculation as to what she needs to make another run at the White House. These four together, however, are overshadowed by the generals (and admirals). The military men dominate. They set the terms of the discussion, they control the option exercise, they impose the war fighting mode of approach, they have the most seats around all tables. Petraeus, Mullen, McChrystal et al acted with the supreme self assurance that comes from two sources. One is very narrow strategic vision; the other is knowing that the President has not the public backing, the courage nor a persuasive alternative to do other than to operate within their frame of reference. In addition, they had in Leon Panetta at the CIA a combative, steadfast ally.
The entire process is intellectually disingenuous from the outset. There has been a silent accord to redefine the objective. It no longer is to 'defeat' the Taliban, i.e. eliminating them as a political force in Afghanistan. By some mental slight of mind, that end has been transmuted into restricting their presence and influence so that they do not have stable control over large swathes of territory. The implications of the switch are profound yet the switch is never even acknowledged. It goes unremarked by all participants. For one thing, such an outcome is incompatible with the supposedly overriding goal of guaranteeing that al-Qaeda could not regain a foothold in Afghanistan - at any time in the future.
Two critical White House positions also have been held by generals: National Security Director James Jones and Douglas Luce, the Iraq/Afghanistan coordinator at the NSC. The Obama appointed Director of National Intelligence was Admiral Dennis Blair. To his credit, Blair was the most lucid, conscientious and, therefore, shunned of Obama's advisors. The president summarily sacked him for his efforts. The Pentagon contingent has been buttressed by Secretary Robert Gates. Gates, also a Bush appointee, is a lifelong hawk. (Gates is on record as declaring Mikhail Gorbachev finally showed his old-line Bolshie colors - in January 1991). His carefully tended persona as a reasonable and reasoned statesmen adds greatly to his status and influence. He is the Pentagon troupe's godfather. He brings to the predominant military position the invaluable asset of an implicit threat to resign if the Pentagon doesn't get what they want. He is a hovering presence throughout - if not seen, felt. Lute, too, is a holdover from the Bush administration - although not a member of the Pentagon phalanx. As for Jones, selected for his supposed administrative skills, he has no ties personal or political to the President. The military's predominance is the second major conclusion to draw from the Woodward account.
Telling items in the Woodward recitation point up a lack of respect among the military for Obama that goes beyond strong willed assertion of their views. Petraeus is quoted as saying, "He doesn't know who he's messing with." Later, he reassures his Pentagon fellows that they'll be able to finesse the tag-on commitment to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan by July 1, 2011 by pointing to successes that could lead to victory with more time and troops. Admiral Mullen stonewalls the President by refusing to outline alternatives other than the contrived set already presented, and even argues with Deputy Chief of Staff General James Cartwright that the latter need not bother to satisfy the commander-in-chief's request.
The civilians in senior foreign policy posts are out numbered. Anyway, Hillary's hawkishness has neutered the State Department as a force. There, too, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, has taken an equally bellicose attitude, although reportedly now somewhat sobered by the task's awesome challenges. The diplomatic dimension suffered as a consequence. The administration's notion of diplomacy in the theatre seemed to boil down to relays of senior officials flying into Kabul to browbeat Karzai and into Islamabad to intimidate Zarkari and Kayani. To make matters worse, these encounters are aggravated by their being clueless as to the right mode of address to a Pashtun or Punjabi general who formerly ran the ISI.
Equally important, there was no one among the principals who qualifies as a strategist by any stretch of the imagination. There is no strategic overview whatsoever - it's all about one tactical approach or another in AfPak as viewed in isolation from everything else in the world.
Biden, to his credit, does zero in logical flaws and discrepancies in the line being pitched by the Pentagon foursome of Petraeus, McChrystal, Mullen and Gates. For example, he presses McChrystal - the main presenter - to say how you can expect to build an effective Afghan army loyal to the state when the government is universally seen as corrupt and illegitimate. The unvarying response is simply a reaffirmation of the conviction that the surge plan is necessary. At times, Biden's pointed questions are met with silence. In no instance does a present Obama intervene to press for a clear, honest answer.
Obama has no one to blame for this sorry state other than himself. He hand picked a foreign policy team composed of Republican stay behinds, celebrities like Hillary who is neither loyal to him nor provides substantial experience in foreign affairs (apart from eluding a hail of sniper fire at the Tuzla airport in 1995), and pale technocrats. Skeptics and potential naysayers were ruled out. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel did not get a serious look when jobs were allocated in the new administration. Those skeptical military men who remained were weeded out. General David McKiernan in Afghanistan was fired at the urging of Petraeus and Gates to be replaced by Petraeus' emanation, Stanley McChrystal. Ambassador (General) Karl Eikenberry was studiously excluded from any central role in the review because he was out of step with the prevailing Pentagon line.
Eikenberry starkly stated his disagreement in a tart message sent November 6. He wrote:"there is no option but to widen the scope of our analysis and to consider alternatives beyond a strictly military counterinsurgency effort within Afghanistan"....a "comprehensive, interdisciplinary analysis of all our strategic options" is in order No National Intelligence Estimate was requested.
The Gates/Petraeus faction saw Eikenberry as a clear and present menace to their plans. Obama thereby denied himself the support, or even presence, of persons who have the mindset, the intellectual courage and/or commitment to the president that possibly could have enabled him to widen his choices. A more astute President with a more fully developed sense of responsibility would have had a long one-on-one with Eikenberry in the Oval Office early in the review. He would have forced the coven of Pentagon hawks to answer the doubter's critiques in person. He would have seen that Eikenberry, given his stature, was throwing the president a lifeline. Obama didn't even recognize what it was. He never considered doing any of these savvy things.
Finally, one comes away from this dispiriting story with a keener appreciation of Obama's limitations. He is a remarkably conventional thinker who defers to established opinion and persons. He instinctively gives the benefit of all doubts to those who embody a conservative perspective. He lacks the imagination and forcefulness to fashion his own conception of what a situation is, what it means and what the public need dictates in the way of policy action. He habitually sees the greatest risks as residing in any marked departure from the status quo; hence, he permits himself only slight deviations from it. When he does venture to so he needs the reassurance of having at least some of the most powerful powers that be by his side (Jaime Dimon and Ben bernanke, Big Pharma, the Pentagon as embodied by Robert Gates, the CIA old hands). His press spokesman Robert Gibbs even wound up serving as the public defender for B.P. The arc of history, viewed in rather conventional terms, bends him rather than the other way round.
Obama's total absence of executive experience also shines through. To cite just one further failure, he did not see the need for a mechanism to provide a constant monitoring of whether, how and with what effects the myriad of programs and initiatives agreed were being implemented. Not surprising then that in late winter Obama should pronounce himself "shocked" that the numbers of combat ready Afghan soldiers and police weren't close to those assumed during the deliberations. The is no plan to end the CIA's longstanding collaboration with corrupt, unpopular warlords (including the Mafia style, illiterate boss of Oruzgan province) whose dominance vitiates the scheme to work around Karzai's inept central government. Similarly, no one pays attention to the costs of appointing as the new head of the 'government in a package' parachuted into Marjah province an ex-felon from Germany. Not least, ten months after Obama's formal promulgation of the new, 'smarter' strategy not a single Taliban foot soldier has been recruited by the much vaunted 'reintegration program.' The program, Richard Holbrooke admits, simply does not exist in any tangible form.
For a fleeting moment, the White House was boasting of the 'fifty metrics' it would apply to gauge with exactitude how all the intricate pieces of our strategy were faring. The term has vanished from the administration's lexicon like morning dew in the Hindu Kush. Woodward gives it no mention - the coup de grace for a once promising public relations phrase.
Not least of his liabilities, Obama is a poor politician - despite his dazzling run for the presidency. He made the mistake during the campaign of committing himself to an escalated effort in Afghanistan and its extension into Pakistan without thinking through the implications - political and strategic. He evidently did so not out of conviction but rather based on the dubious belief that his opposition to the Iraq war could prove a liability in the general election that had to be offset by a muscular position elsewhere in the 'war on terror.' Thus, he allowed himself to get boxed into a corner - intellectually, politically, and in terms of the forces within his own administration.
Obama, consequently, never considered an alternative to a deeper American military commitment in Afghanistan. He apparently thought himself brave in holding down the troop increase to just 30,000, telephoning Senator Lindsey Graham to make sure the number was acceptable to the Republicans. (Graham's response: anything with a 3 in it will fly).In the end, he drafted himself a five page 'Terms Sheet' document specifying everything that had been agreed. Obama's best in the way of independent decision was to add the formal commitment to some sort of drawdown of troops eighteen months hence. It made no logical sense in terms of the strategy he had just signed onto. It now has been called into question explicitly by General Petraeus in his latest public relations tour of the country's media.
Obama is paying a steep price for his faults and his unjustified confidence that all he does is sprinkled with star dust. He will continue to do so. So will we. As for the Afghans.....