Bob Woodward’s new book, “Obama’s Wars,” is days away from release and already causing a stir. As the title implies, it’s not only about the U.S. “overseas contingency operations” President Obama is overseeing but also the personality clashes and policy conflicts the White House has shielded from public view. Since the Obama team invited Mr. Woodward into its midst and thus legitimized his enterprise, whatever fallout comes from the book will be a self-inflicted wound.
Some of the most commented-on aspects are more flash than bang. We learn that senior presidential adviser David M. Axelrod is “a complete spin doctor,” but what else is new? White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel may have cheered targeted killings by drones, but who doesn’t feel a certain satisfaction when terrorists abruptly meet their maker? It already was well-known that special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke suffers from an acute case of heightened self-esteem and also that Vice President Joe Biden wanted desperately to avoid having Afghanistan turn into another Vietnam, a war he successfully avoided the first time around.
Mr. Obama saying the United States could “absorb” another major terrorist attack was certainly a case of inartful phrasing, but his fundamental point acknowledges the strength of America. Terrorism remains a priority threat, but there is nothing the terrorists could do, no act of dramatic violence, that would mean the end of the United States. Even a small-scale nuclear attack, what the president calls “a potential game changer,” would not destroy the Land of the Free. A low-level nuclear terror strike would make for some terrible days but not the end of times, except hopefully for the state sponsors that assist terrorists in obtaining such weapons.
The problems for the White House are the sudden cracks in the administration’s well-maintained facade of competence and confidence. The 30,000-troop surge was not a figure determined by military advisers, as had been assumed, but by Mr. Obama himself. The “low-risk option” of 80,000 troops - which was reported in the fall of 2009 - made the president “uncomfortable.” The book also confirms that the president’s July 2011 target date to begin the pullout from Afghanistan was not based on a sober assessment of the requirements of the counterinsurgency but on political calculations. Mr. Obama wanted to keep antiwar elements of the Democratic leadership on board, which a limitless timeline wouldn’t do. The heavy downside of this political move will become evident as the July 2011 date nears, and the president will be forced to take action regardless of the state of play in Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama shows character traits similar to those of his predecessor Lyndon B. Johnson. Like Johnson, Mr. Obama is not a military expert but believes he can successfully micromanage a complex war strategy. He is impatient with military leaders suggesting policies that don’t mesh with his political priorities. He was unwilling to spend $889 billion over 10 years to fight the Afghan war but was willing to throw away approximately the same amount over 1 1/2 years on a failed attempt at economic stimulus. He is fighting a CIA-backed covert war in Pakistan that is more complex and more deadly than the “secret war” in Laos of Johnson’s era.
Also like President Johnson, Mr. Obama studiously avoids the term “victory” in discussions of Afghanistan. He’s not concerned with “winning” or “losing” the war, but whether the United States emerges from the conflict stronger or weaker. One problem with this approach is that the Taliban and al Qaeda (like the North Vietnamese) are very focused on winning. The United States cannot approach the war like a pre-season football game in which the score doesn’t matter. At the very least, Mr. Obama’s “peace without victory” approach betrays the sacrifice being made by troops on the ground. As Ronald Reagan said of Vietnam in 1965, “If you ask a man to lay down his life for his country, the least you can do is tell him that he has the right to win.”