One doubts that Bob Woodward intended to diminish President Obama in his latest exercise of "insta-history," but that is precisely what has occurred. That is, assuming the snippets appearing in the Big Two of the MSM are accurate representatives of the book as a whole.
Most bothersome is the President's evident desire for the military to get him off the hook of making decisions by providing him with an exit strategy. The refusal of the senior military command to take on a job properly resting with the Guy in the Oval is to their collective credit.
Whether Mr Obama likes the idea or not, the defining of the conditions under which American forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan or any other theater of war is a purely political one. It is necessary under the American doctrine of civilian supremacy--a doctrine so beloved by the President that he fired General McChrystal for allegedly violating it--for the president to define both the political goal and the minimum necessary signs of accomplishing that goal.
It is the president who determines what constitutes the better state of peace for which the war is being fought and defines "victory." The military command has the task of advising the president as to what its forces can be expected to accomplish, the cost associated with any given level of accomplishment as well as developing and implementing the "theory of victory" by which the goal and its associated concept of "victory" might be achieved.
This dynamic, a process sanctioned by generations of presidents and generals, required that Mr Obama lay out for the military just what constituted a better state of peace. It also required that the president decide what costs would be acceptable. Attempting to off-load these messy but central tasks on to the military command structure was both gutless and witless.
A year ago when the overly prolonged exercise in soul searching over Afghanistan was underway, the president and his "team" had a simple choice to make. They had to decide which of two quite different options would provide the better state of peace in and around Afghanistan.
The choice was termed one between "counter-terrorism" and "counter-insurgency." In actuality the choice was between a limited punitive and deterrent effort directed against the advocates of violent political Islam in al-Qaeda, Taliban, and the Haqqani network and the far more expansive, not to say, unlimited one of combining a defeat of Taliban et al with the building of an effectively Western style nation-state in Afghanistan.
While there existed a continuum of alternatives between the poles of limited counter-terrorism and unlimited counter-insurgency, the decision was or should have been one of focus, emphasis. The debate within the ranks of presidential advisers was quite robust as Woodward underscores. It was also, if Woodward is to be accepted, a debate which was colored heavily by the considerations of domestic politics.
There is, of course, nothing new nor wrongheaded in the involvement of domestic politics in the decision making process regardless of what some Republican critics may say now. It is and always has been a necessary part of the process. Arguably it is the single most important consideration when considering involvement in counterinsurgency as this type of war is a struggle between the political wills of the contesting polities, both indigenous and foreign.
The proposition is different when domestic politics becomes the major, perhaps the preeminent policy consideration. This was the case in the Afghanistan decision. Mr Obama made the worst of all choices and then made the results of a bad decision even worse.
In essence, the president opted for the counterinsurgency orientation without providing sufficient resources. At the same time he failed to prepare the American public, particularly that segment most closely aligned with the Democratic Party, for the reality that counterinsurgency demanded extraordinary patience, a willingness to accept inconclusive measurements of progress, and an outcome which would not make everybody--perhaps anybody--happy.
In short, Mr Obama made the same basic errors as had the Bush/Cheney administration--too broad a goal, too few resources, and no proper preparation of the American public so political will would be sapped quickly. To this recipe for failure, he added a new ingredient.
Mr Obama accompanied his announcement of a mini-surge with a date certain when US combat forces would commence withdrawal. The justification offered in Mr Woodward's book is the one so obvious at the time--fear of alienating the Democratic Party's progressive base.
The imperatives of what passed for Presidential thinking were pathetically obvious at the time even without Woodward's insider quotes. Mr Obama wished to protect his flank against attacks from the Right by appearing tough-minded and vigorous as a wartime leader dedicated to the defeat of "extremism" and the installation of democracy. At the same time he sought to protect his Left flank from attacks on that vector by providing a "date certain" and limiting the number of new hostages to fortune deployed to the war zone.
The results of this politically driven decision were obvious at the time. The chief beneficiary would be Taliban which now understood that US patience was officially limited. Paradoxically the next beneficiary would be the government of Hamid Karzai, which would see it could afford to ignore the calls for Westernization and chat up Taliban in search of a middle ground.
There is no real doubt that Afghanistan, the US, and even Pakistan would have been better off had the Nice Young Man From Chicago opted for the limited counter-terrorism approach. In effect, had Obama picked up the ball which had been dropped so badly by Bush/Cheney. It is ironic, deliciously so, that had Obama gone for the punitive expedition option discarded by the ever-so-muscular dude from Texas, he would have had a very good chance of successfully achieving a better state of peace characterized by a greatly diminished threat from al-Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other advocates of violent political Islam in the region.
Of course, to expect Mr Obama to have made an intelligent decision about war is too expect the utterly impossible. The idea of war offends his tidy, lawyerly mind. It outrages his personal morality of progressivism. It violates his belief in the pussiance of international institutions. War is a subject about which Mr Obama knows so little he has no capacity to know what he does not know. And, war is a subject which so deeply revolts the Obama sensibilities that he has no desire to rectify his abysmal ignorance nor to come to respect the knowledge and capacities of men in uniform who do know wars and how to fight them.
In this respect he exceeds even Bill Clinton.
Mr Clinton at the least had the vague understanding that defeat by an enemy such as al-Qaeda would have long lasting and very negative consequences for the US--and the rest of the civilized world. In his distaste for war--and his acceptance of the tenets of the "blame American first" school of history and politics, Mr Obama lacks even this.
Mr Obama is quite evidently unbothered by the possibility of American defeat in Afghanistan. He is not even overly concerned about the resumption of terror attacks against the continental United States as he has observed that the US could "absorb" more attacks. This is correct if one restricts the use of the word "absorb" to the purely physical effects of an attack and puts to the side the impact upon national morale, self-confidence, and American standing in global politics.
If the tantalizing bits from Woodward's forthcoming book are accurate, he has performed a useful albeit unpleasant service to We the People. He has shot another and well deserved arrow into the blimp of myth which is President Barack Obama.