Bob Woodward has made something of a late career surge out of Iraq and Afghanistan. His Bush at War, Plan of Attack, and State of Denial all received warm plaudits from reviewers and fellow hacks alike. That trilogy detailed with a remarkable lightness the functioning of the Bush White House’s foreign policy: its designs, strategies and internal dissent. Obama’s Wars, his latest book, picks up where they left off. Obama, too, finds that what is past is prologue – stuck as he is, even before he is sworn in, with two boggy wars for which he has little heart.
Perhaps as a result of this new scepticism, the focus of the policymakers around the new president is on refiguring the war in Afghanistan as a struggle for strategic advantage in what comes to be known as the ‘AfPak’ region. Woodward makes it hard to conceive of Afghanistan as much more than a proxy war against the unstable elements of its far more potent neighbour: even as Iraq is dialed down, intense and interminable debates are had about the precise balance to strike in tackling the ISI, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and a teetering Muslim state in possession of nuclear weapons.
There emerges a clear gulf between the White House’s political team and the military figures advising Obama – among them the commander in Iraq, General Stanley McChrystal, his boss at CENTCOM, General David Petraeus, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen. As was widely reported at the time, Joe Biden opposes their counterinsurgency strategy, and their proposed uptick in troop numbers; more interesting is James Jones, the retired General whom Obama appoints as his National Security Adviser – despite his past in uniform, Jones is an equivocal voice far more cautious about full-blown deployment in Afghanistan. His focus is always on the stability of Pakistan; his colleagues in the intelligence services, most notably Dennis Blair, the frustrated Director of National Intelligence, are only too aware of the danger that American troops will wind up shadowboxing in an arena replete with double, triple and quadruple bluffs on the parts of all the players.
Much of Woodward’s book narrates the detailed, somewhat circular, discussions which made for such critical headlines from late summer to early winter last year. The decision on what exactly to do in Afghanistan is endlessly delayed, largely – as Woodward depicts it – as a result of the military’s refusal to provide more than one viable option (a leisurely increase of 40,000 combat troops, plus a few thousand more support staff and an emergency 10% discretionary pool). Another important factor, however, is Obama’s own interest in maintaining appearances: he does not wish to seem to be boxed-in by his military advisers:
Obama had campaigned against Bush’s ideas and approaches. But, Donilon [the Deputy NSA], for one, thought that Obama had perhaps underestimated the extent to which he had inherited George W. Bush’s presidency – the apparatus, personnel and mind-set of war making. [pg. 281]
I found it impossible to read Obama’s Wars and not recall David Halberstam’s magisterial 2002 study of 1990s US foreign policy, War In A Time of Peace. That book covers the presidencies of both George Bush Snr. and, more fully, Bill Clinton – of course the last Democratic occupant of the White House. What is striking is that, despite the reputedly transformative trauma of 9/11 (Halberstam even prefaced his work with some remarks on this subject), the relationship between policymakers and generals seems little changed. The decision-making process over the intervention in the Balkans was, according to Halberstam, just as prolonged and pained as Obama’s over AfPak; Halberstam makes much of the Vietnam precedent, and it hangs like a leery oracle over Obama’s White House, too.
Yet Obama makes the point to Woodward that he is perhaps the first President for whom Vietnam was not a formative experience. Despite the advice of Leon Panetta, his director of the CIA, that “no Democratic president can go against military advice” [pg. 247], Obama, unlike Halberstam’s Clinton, stamps his own authority on foreign policy: he steers a middle ground between the doves and the hawks, and crafts a distinctive message. Whether that message has ultimately had much resonance is a different issue; Obama has at least tried to forge a coherent policy, with due consideration of its intended effects.
On the subject of effects, Obama demanded – against military opposition and widespread tensions which have persisted – on a December 2010 review of the eventual increase in troop numbers (a swift 30,000, without any of the wiggle room). The latest on that review is that it’s on track. A fitting subject, one imagines, for Bob Woodward’s next book.