By Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, $30, 441 pages
Here comes Bob Woodward again, no longer needing to invent improbable deathbed conversations (former CIA director William J. Casey in “Veil”) or create oddly named composite characters who like to use potted geraniums to signal furtive meetings in dark parking garages. Having made his bones by bringing down a president, having been immortalized by Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men,” and having turned out a steady stream of behind-the scenes Washington best-sellers, he finds the characters he writes about now seek him out.
In “Obama’s Wars,” the administration throws open the White House doors, inviting Mr. Woodward in, loading him up with classified documents, internal memos and meeting notes and encouraging everyone to talk to him - the president himself talks, as do his aides, his military advisers, intelligence officials, diplomats - all eager to get on record their versions of what is really going on in Afghanistan, how and why our policies there will succeed or fail, and who ultimately will be responsible.
Through all this talk, several somewhat startling conclusions emerge: No one in this administration seems to like anyone else, the president and his tight circle of advisers don’t like or trust the military, the military doesn’t like or trust them, no one likes the diplomats, and the president doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.
During the 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama made central issues of his opponent’s support of “Bush’s war” in Iraq (the bad war) and his neglect of the war in Afghanistan (the good war). But when he took office, that “good war” became his war, and he wants no part of it.
“I have two years with the public on this,” Mr. Woodward quotes him as saying. “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.” The objective is a plan for a quick exit. “This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. … There cannot be any wiggle room.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus holds a different view: “I think you keep fighting … 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.”
That’s not what the White House wants to hear, and according to Mr. Woodward, the palace guard prohibited Gen. Petraeus from airing his views on the Sunday talk shows. Some think Gen. Petraeus eventually may go the way of former National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones - a combat Marine recently replaced by a more politically acceptable appointee - who referred to advisers Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and others as “the waterbugs,” “the Politburo” and “the Mafia.”
But Gen. Petraeus commands too much respect among voters to be treated shabbily, and after all, the day may come when the president needs a prominent scapegoat for the failure of his Afghan war-fighting plan.
The plan itself, arrived at after months of what Dick Cheney called “dithering,” and after the president turned down the recommendation of his military advisers for an Iraq-like surge, called for temporarily adding 30,000 troops and came with a six-page, single-spaced set of specific secret orders, reprinted by Mr. Woodward, designed to limit the mission and goals of the war and absolve the president of blame if the war doesn’t end as scripted.
On the face of it, the president’s plan presents challenges. The 30,000 surge would be completed next summer when the previously announced troop withdrawal begins, so we’ll be witness to potentially massive logistical problems brought on by troops leaving, troops arriving, then pivoting and leaving again, all at about the same time.
As more than one critic has pointed out, there’s something just a little out of whack here. In a 1930s film, Groucho Marx, playing a befuddled character named Captain Spalding, introduced this song: “Hello, hello, I must be going!”
That just may describe the problem with the president’s plan. The title of the film was “Animal Crackers.” Not a bad subtitle at all for “Obama’s Wars.”
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).