“The speech [by President Obama on his new strategy for Afghanistan] sounded to me like a slick lawyer trying to sell a dubious settlement to a skeptical. . .set of clients.”
Power Line, December 1, 2009
“Obama ended up designing his own [Afghanistan] strategy, a lawyerly compromise among the feuding factions.”
Bob Woodward, Washington Post, September 27, 2010
Bob Woodward began his career in journalism by breaking stories that otherwise might never have seen the light of day. In mid-career, he specialized in beating other journalists to material, much of it spin, that the movers and shakers of the day were going to make sure received the light of day one way or another. These days, Woodward’s beat seems to be the obvious — facts that were uncovered or intuited months earlier by others, including reporters at his own paper.
Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to take Woodward’s refresher course in Obama-the-joke-of-a-commander-in-chief 101. Woodward confirms, first of all, that Obama was unable to browbeat the military brass into providing him with a military option consistent with the kind of commitment he wanted to make to the Afghan fight. To be sure, Obama was handicapped by the fact that the military didn’t believe that fighting a war at Obama’s level of commitment made sense. But it is still disconcerting to read about a president this lacking in force of personality and this unable to command respect.
Next, Woodward confirms that the strategy Obama ultimately came with was, indeed, a compromise between two approaches, both of which seem more plausible: (1) fighting at the level of commitment (both in terms of troop levels and timing) the military thinks is necessary to succeed or (2) drawing down our troop level and focusing on selective strikes designed to disrupt the Taliban. The first option had the support of the military, including those who designed and carried out the successful Iraq surge. The second option had the support of Vice President Biden, perhaps (and what a sad commentary this is) the closest thing to an adult and quasi-expert in Obama’s inner circle.
The compromise option Obama came up with apparently was not advocated by anyone who claims expertise in this area.
Finally, Woodward confirms what has been painfully obvious from Obama’s language (including body language) for months. The U.S. President doesn’t much believe in the strategy pursuant to which he is sending American troops into harm’s way. According to Woodward, Obama, after noting that “the easy thing for me to do, politically, would actually be to say no” to sending in 30,000 additional troops, began to say he would be “perfectly happy” not to send them in. Stopping in mid-sentence, Obama then projected his feelings (accurately enough) on to Rahm Emanuel: “Nothing would make Rahm happier than if I said no to the 30,000.”
I don’t assume that Obama made these statements just because Woodward reports them. But I don’t doubt that they reflect his state of mind.
After formulating a compromise no one seems to have really believed in, Obama the lawyer-in-chief reduced it to a six page “term sheet.” He also insisted that “we’re not going to do this unless everybody literally signs on to it and looks me in the eye and tells me they are for it.”
Was Obama really foolish enough to believe that this sort of ceremony would provide him with historical cover? Woodward’s one useful function in this affair, perhaps an unwitting one, is to help make sure that it won’t.