During the campaign for the 2008 election, then-Senator Obama repeatedly argued that President Bush was fighting a lost war in Iraq, while ignoring the truly important theater of operations- Afghanistan.
He repeatedly pledged to end the war in Iraq, and win the war in Afghanistan. Right up until he was elected. Turns out, things look a little different when you’re sitting in the big chair.
The president concluded from the start that “I have two years with the public on this” and pressed advisers for ways to avoid a big escalation, the book says. “I want an exit strategy,” he implored at one meeting. Privately, he told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”
What is interesting about this bit is that it so closely fits the mold of how the GOP has portrayed the Democratic Party for 40 years, that is, weak on defense. Oddly, President Obama had a very good chance to change this perception with the support of a fair portion of his party. Despite the opprobrium heaped upon President Bush during the war in Iraq, most Democrats couched it in terms of it being a distraction from the “real war” in Afghanistan. They were pretty gung-ho to get rollin’ with the war there. Or at least saying they were. And many “Blue Dog” Dems were not blind to the fact that their party has a reputation of being soft on defense and anti-military. Further, they noted that in spite of stupendous levels of scorn heaped upon Bush about the war, he still managed to be re-elected to the Presidency. And few GOP members of Congress lost their seats in 2006 or 2008 over support for the war. They lost mostly for economic reasons. If President Obama had moved aggressively to enlarge and energize the war in Afghanistan, he would have had significant support from the Dems. And with the GOP, he would have been pushing on an open door. It was a perfect opportunity for President Obama to demonstrate the bipartisanship that he had promised during his campaign.
Sadly, President Obama, with no executive experience, and little real world experience at all, managed to convince himself that the anti-war, liberal wing of his party would hold sway. He also seems to have convinced himself that his military advisors were conspiring against him to enact their own agenda. This lead to a waffling over policy that managed to alienate both political parties in the run-up to his decision to order a troop surge of 30,000 troops through July, 2011. In the end, no one was happy with the compromise. The military leadership felt the increase wouldn’t amount to the critical mass to successfully implement a COIN strategy, the GOP and moderate Dems felt the President was soft on the war, and the liberal wing of the Dems were emboldened to argue against the war. Well, done, Mr. President.
Now, I’m always more than a little skeptical of anything Woodward writes. He himself has an agenda- sell books. Controversy and discord are the route to that goal. Having said that, the insights that the NYT shares with us show a great deal of personal conflict in the Obama administration:
Although the internal divisions described have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known and offers new details. Mr. Biden called Mr. Holbrooke “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met,”[ed. concur] although he “may be the right guy for the job.”[ed. Biden’s been wrong on every other thing, so he’s doubtless wrong here as well.] A variety of administration officials expressed scorn forJames L. Jones, the retired Marine general who is national security adviser, while he referred to some of the president’s other aides as “the water bugs” or “the Politburo.”
Every administration is going to have a good deal of disagreement over policy and politics. And one of Woodward’s prime methods of gathering information is to play off individuals who wish to advance their own agendas against others. But after listening to insider gossip like this about administrations for over 30 years, I’m struck by something here. In this administration, the lines are almost always drawn between academics and policy wonks who are supposed experts, and those folks who have actually worked in their fields of expertise. And sadly, the academics and wonks seem to rule the roost.
Mr. Obama’s struggle with the decision comes through in a conversation with SenatorLindsey Graham of South Carolina, who asked if his deadline to begin withdrawal in July 2011 was firm. “I have to say that,” Mr. Obama replied. “I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”
As a practical matter, some consideration of politics is inherent in every policy and decision in war. I get that. But I get the distinct impression that for President Obama, that consideration came well before the tactical, operational, and strategic implications of his decisions regarding the war. Can you imagine President Bush putting domestic political considerations at the forefront of his decisions regarding the war?