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Book Review Obamas Wars By Bob Woodward

LtCol Marcus Steroid Annibale, USMC Conduct of Foreign Policy March 14, 2013

This is a Warning Document The headline here is We are on Thin Ice, not enough has been done to clarify and set the direction of a war that is not just going to define the Obama Presidency but will define what America is in one year, two years, fifty years. Bob Woodward, finishing an interview with Charlie Rose, October 5th, 2010

Bob Woodwards Obamas Wars, is an unvarnished, thorough account of President Barrack Obamas first eighteen months in office, focusing on his struggle to form a national security team and strategy for the inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 1 Woodwards remarkable access takes the reader to the inner sanctum of White House decision-making to witness the interagency grapple with tough questions and even tougher decisions. Published in September 2010, Obamas Wars remains relevant today in President Obamas second term, as America nears the denouement of the Afghanistan war. Still remaining is the principal question, What were our objectives and have they been accomplished? Obamas Wars reveals the initial road-map charted and exposes the leadership qualities and style of the President, as well as the personalities and interpersonal relationships of those who formed the policies and strategy. There are several major themes of the book, but the core issue is President Obamas lack of political will to win, superseded by his determination to exit. 2 An overarching theme is tense civilmilitary relationships. President-elect Obama received his early intelligence briefs on threats from the Deputy of National Intelligence (DNI), Vice Admiral (retired) Mike McConell and Director of Central Intelligence, General Mike Hayden. There was an early clash of cultures when the career intelligence officers were immediately on a defensive-footing with the President-elect due to their enhanced interrogation programs.3 Moreover, an inner-circle of Obamas most trusted political advisors openly sparred with both uniformed and civilian defense leadership. Most notably, Rahm Emanuel, the new White House Chief of 1

Staff, clashed with General James Jones who was chosen as National Security Advisor (NSA). Jones referred to Emanuel and his campaign-set as major obstacles; this group that included David Axelrod (Senior Advisor), Robert Gibbs (Press Secretary) and two operatives within the National Security Council (NSC), Denis McDonough (Deputy NSA) and Mark Lippert (NSC Chief of Staff). Jones called them the water-bugs, as on page 138: There are too many senior aides around the president, Jones said privately. They are like water bugs. They flit around The water bugs did not understand war or foreign relations, Jones felt, and were too interested in measuring the short-term political impact of the presidents decisions in these areas. A sub-plot of flawed strategy development began with a poor decision in designing an initial strategy for the wars in South Asia before the national security team was even formed. President Obamas campaign advisor, David Axelrod, advised the President to focus first on selecting his White House staff and then pick his cabinet. Early on, in February 2009, Obama asked Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst, to work in the NSC and produce a 60-day strategy review, known later as the Riedel Review. Unfortunately, Obama began to revise his strategy before he had all his team picked and did not gain their buy-in. Robert Gates had just agreed to stay on as Secretary of Defense; Leon Panetta was in confirmation hearings; Hillary Clinton had just been courted as Secretary of State; and most importantly, the military commander, General Stanley McChrystal, was not yet in place. General Stanley McChrystal did not emerge as the commander in Afghanistan until General David McKiernan was relieved for his perceived inability to lead the new strategy. 4 Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (CJCS), had his eye on a new commander and selected McChrystal to execute the strategy. Both General David Petreaus, then commander of Central Command (CENTCOM) and Secretary Gates endorsed the decision. The Riedel Review centered on a thesis that Pakistan is the powder keg with nuclear weapons, instability and a safe haven for the Taliban insurgency as well as the core leadership of al 2

Qaida. Pakistan and Afghanistan are intrinsically linked, and Riedel argued the strategy must address this linkage. Vice President Biden led an early pre-inaugural trip to meet with Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Asif Ali Zardari in Pakistan to get his own sense of the problem and telegraph a strong message of a changing approach. After numerous Principals Committee (PC) meetings, the general consensus in Jones-led NSC was that the new strategy would require substantially more troops. There was considerable debate on approaches; and, Biden became the sole contrarian to counterinsurgency, advocating counterterrorism (CT) plus, which would presumably require substantially less troops. With fundamental questions still unanswered and Afghan elections in August looming, Obama presided over an NSC meeting on February 13, 2009, and approved a Pentagon request for 17,000 troops. Notably uninvited and absent from the NSC meeting were Panetta and Petreaus. Requests for additional troops dominated and distracted the formation of strategy; this was a case of placing the cart before the horse. General McChrystal, understanding his immense challenge, produced his own Commanders Assessment while forward in Afghanistan. The assessment was damning as it pointed to years of prior neglect and lack of progress in Afghanistan. McChrystal later requested an additional 40,000 troops; Jones and the White House were troubled by this request on the immediate heels of a previous approval for 17,000 before McChrystal was in place. Reports were leaked further complicating positions. Jones tried to play emissary to buttress the mounting tension between the White House and a unified surge-front formed by Gates, Mullen and Petreaus, all of whom supported McChrystals troop request. The President and his administration felt boxed in and without options. On numerous occasions, Obama asked Gates and Mullen for more options, including the hybrid counterterrorism plus option, as well as an accelerated transition timetables, but he did not receive any real alternatives, 40,000 troops was the fail-safe line. Furthermore, leaks, interviews and speeches such as, McChrystals address to a Special Forces gathering in London assailing the Biden counterterrorism plus premise, resulted in 3

strained relationships, especially between Jones and Mullen, as well as, the President and McChrystal. 5 The united surge-front became locked in opposition to the water bugs, with Jones trapped as a middle-man. The Presidents political will is fixed on an exit strategy, not winning. When Secretary Gates mentioned a transfer horizon during a NSC session, Obama latched onto the notion of establishing a timeline for withdrawal. The President drove consensus, and Mullen and Gates supported planning milestones for withdrawal at 18-24 months to help ensure the Afghans would understand their responsibilities. July, 2011 became a pivotal date, the off-ramp point for the exit-strategy. 6 In his strategy speech delivered at West Point, the President announced the surge of 30,000 more troops, along with the plan to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. 7 Woodward describes a President who ran the White House like a lawyer, asking tough questions and trying to build consensus but not providing any vision other than political bounds such a troop-levels and timetables. His objectives were not anchored on defeat of the Taliban nor Afghanistans ability to govern, rather favorable conditions for US forces to withdraw and give Afghanistan a fighting chance.8 McDonough described Obamas desire for everyone to sign onto a Terms Sheet, a classified document that Obama personally drafted. Not since Lincoln has a president become so immersed in the details of wartime guidance. Obama wanted political accountability should the surge fail to produce the results desired by the surge-front. He viewed 30,000 troops as, what Im willing to take on, politically.9 Obamas strategy appears to have been built on the hope that the time, space, intensity and success would allow the politics to come together. This recalls the old military axiom that Hope is not a strategy. The tensions in civil-military relations reached a culminating point months after the troops were sent forward; when in June, 2010, a Rolling Stone magazine profile article exposed General McChrytstal and his staff making disparaging and mocking comments about their senior leaders including Vice President Biden and General Jones. After accepting McChrystals resignation and re-assigning General 4

Petreaus as the Afghanistan commander the President rightfully said, I welcome debate among my team, but I wont tolerate division. Obamas Wars is an informative primer on US foreign policy-making. Woodwards book illustrates the formal processes and roles of the staff and bureaucracy, while presenting the realities that the process can be quickly derailed by clashing personalities and cultures. 10 The book also showcases the National Security Staff (NSS), and how the staff works with the interagency in forming policy. 11 Additionally, it shows how the White House interacts with heads of state and the Congress, as reflected in the negotiations for an aid package for Pakistan. Of course, personalities and bureaucratic cultures clash in this high-stakes process. What is important is not whether the surge-fronts advice for Afghanistan was sage, but rather, whether the president's staff and decision-making processes are responsive to his conception of strategy. If it is not, the president needs to fix his staff and process. As Woodward highlights, Obama's approach to his recalcitrant advisers resulted in a disruptive civil-military conflict. Often criticized for lacking analysis, Woodwards book provides a valuable window into recent history. His themes are well documented and articulated; he relied on internal memos, unprecedented access to classified sources, and hundreds of hours of interviews including an hour and a half with President Obama, providing a rare account of this presidents national security inner-workings. Although a chronology is missing and would have been helpful, other included resources such as a Cast of Characters, Glossary, the Final Terms, Chapter Notes, and photos add depth and context to the book. Obamas Wars begs for a sequel or at least a future edition with an epilogue. A proposed epilogue could be titled, We got the bastard, referring to the climactic SEAL team raid killing Osama Bin Laden at Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2nd, 2011.12 Unfortunately, only time will judge Americas success in the enduring war against terror as we approach an impending full transfer of governance to Afghanistan and distrust foments a tenuous relationship with Pakistan.

End Notes:

Bob Woodward, Obamas Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Bob Woodwards Interview with Charlie Rose, October 5th, 2010: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11229 .
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Tension over Enhanced Interrogation Programs: Later, as Hayden briefs his replacement, Leon Panetta, he warned Panetta of his critical writings against the previous administrations policies on page 60: Torture is a felony, Leon, Hayden said. Say you dont like it. Say it offends you. I dont care. But just dont say its torture. Its a felony. The Justice Department had approved what the CIA did in long, detailed memos, solegallythe CIA had not tortured anyone. Again, Panetta did not respond.
4

General McKiernan Fired: According to former Army General Jack Keane, who was a close advisor to the administration, McKiernan was the wrong man for the job, too cautious and too conservative, unwilling to take coaching from his boss, General Davis Petraeus. Petreaus was then in charge of Central Command (CENTCOM) and the father of a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.
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The President and McChrystal: In an illuminating 60-Minutes interview, McChrystal revealed that he hadnt spoken to the President in 70 days, not even via secure conference. Obama had spent little time getting to know his military commander, only a 10-minute initial meeting in the White House and then 25-minutes on Air Force One after McChrystals gaff in London.
6

I want an exit strategy: As stated by the President on numerous occasions, including page 253.

Conditions versus Exit: Later Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, challenges the President about how firm that date was for beginning withdrawal. Obama says the Democratic Party and people at home dont want to hear were going to be there for ten years. Youre right, Graham said. But the enemy is listening too (page 336). Petreaus said privately to Woodward, This is the kind of fight were I for the rest of our lives and probably our kids lives (page 333).
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Presidents focus on timeline versus objectives, as highlighted from pages 290-291: The president explained that these objectives should be met on a much shorter timeline that the Pentagon initially recommended, saying the troops would start thinning out after July 2011the time frame Gates had suggested in their last session. If people dont think this realistically can be done in the time frame, the need to speak now, he challenged. Our goal is to stabilize population centers and then transition to Afghan forces. It is not perfection Objectives: 1. Reversing Taliban momentum 2. Denying the Taliban access 3. Disrupting the Taliban outside secure areas and preventing al Qaeda from regaining sanctuary in Afghanistan 4. Degrading the Taliban to level manageable by the Afghans 5. Increase the size and capacity of the Afghan security forces 6. Building the Afghan government, especially in key ministries

Why 30,000? His decision at 30,000 seems to Cartwright to be a middle-ground between Bidens CT plus and McChrystals 40,000 in order to keep the family together (page 309).

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Clash of Personalities and Cultures: Even within the military, we saw the Vice Chairman Cartwright disagreed with the Chairman, Mullen, over presenting the CT plus option. Admiral Mullen openly clashed with General Petreaus over a memo passed out at a NSC meeting that he had not seen, nor by law was required to and has him retrieve all the copies with the President watching (page 242). Secretary of State, Clinton, aligns with the military early, diminishing Obamas position on troops (page 254). McDonough thought the process was turning into a disaster; a gang of six began informal off-line meetings without Jones (page 254). Eichenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan, sent a cable to Secretary Clinton at the urging of Donilon, highlighting his concerns about a massive influx of troops increasing Afghan dependency, and thereby isolates himself from the military to include McChrystal whom he must work closely with (page 261). The DNI, Blair, criticized the NSA, Jones, for not having control of the NSC, stating that his deputy, Donilon and Assistant to the President on Counterterrorism, Brennan, were too strong and additionally, that the National Security Chief of Staff, McDonough and White House Chief of Staff, Emanuel, also tinkered in policy (page 289). Senior Adviser and Coordinator for Afghanistan-Pakistan, Lute was most critical of CJCS Mullen in rolling the President and failing to honor the integrity of the process by providing him options. Donilon was also highly skeptical of the entire military chain of command. (Pages 322323).
11

The Interagency showcased in the book includes: Intelligence Community (IC), Department of Defense (DoD), Department of State (DoS), and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as well as other agencies.
12

Closing in on Bin Laden: On page 330, Jones said, referring to the Pakistan part of the strategy, Weve found the hornets nest Were poking at it from different ways. The bees are swarming but the queen is still there.