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Back to Eisenhower: Book review of "Obama's Wars"

Ann Marlowe

Some of us who support the war in Afghanistan are reacting to Bob Woodward’s new book by shooting the messenger. This is unwise. Though Obama’s Wars (Simon & Schuster, $30) is completely devoid of literary value or philosophical depth, it is essential reading for anyone who purports to have an opinion on the Afghan war, Pakistan or civil-military relations—particularly the latter.

Looking forward past our engagement in Afghanistan to the unknown next war, the most important lesson in Woodward’s book is the need for healthy skepticism on the part of our president and Congress toward the professional military. Bureaucracies are bureaucracies, whether in business or the military. And the qualities needed to move up in a bureaucracy are not necessarily those needed to serve that bureaucracy’s ultimate constituency. We learned that in the recent financial crisis. Obama’s Wars suggests we take a very hard look at our military leadership, just as we would examine a financial institution that was trying to market risky derivatives.

A return to an Eisenhowerian caution is in order. Indeed, in November 2009 while agonizing over how many troops to send to Afghanistan, President Obama apparently read Eisenhower’s farewell speech on the dangers of the military-industrial complex. (One hopes Obama will read the former president’s injunction to “balance” the next time he contemplates intervening in the economy.)

Woodward’s account of the White House deliberations in fall 2009 shows that the pendulum has swung too far from the disrespect toward the military that characterized the post-Vietnam years to blanket adulation. It is possible to combine respect, even gratitude, with the same critical faculties we use in evaluating other American institutions.

The second lesson is the need for a president with substantial foreign-policy experience and familiarity with the structure of the military and with military theory. Obama himself comes across as dedicated to finding the right solution in Afghanistan, and smart enough to ask the right questions most of the time. But he is desperately inexperienced in matters of war, and handicapped by an enormous ego, telling Woodward on July 10 of this year:

“I am probably the first President who is young enough that the Vietnam War wasn’t at the core of my development. I also had a lot of confidence, I guess, coming in that the way our system of government works civilians have to make policy decisions. And then the military carries them out. I’m neither intimidated by our military, nor am I thinking that they’re somehow trying to undermine my role as commander in chief”

Yes, yes and yes—but Obama got blindsided by the generals. Humility might have been a better starting point.

The high-level White House and Pentagon conversations Woodward magically reproduces here suggest confusion not only in the inexperienced Obama White House, but among our senior military leaders about our strategy in Afghanistan. The wise reader will discount for Woodward’s own prejudices. A military officer close to one of the dramatis personae in the book insisted to me that the heroes/villains index is directly correlated with who opens up to Woodward and who doesn’t. He claimed McChrystal kept his mouth shut and thereby didn’t come off well.

But even at this discount, Obama’s Wars comes with a couple of heroes: the retired generals, Jim Jones and Douglas Lute, who asked, and kept asking, tough questions. (Jones recently announced his retirement.) The villains are Pakistan, first and foremost; Afghanistan’s President Karzai; and two generals, the disgraced Stanley McChrystal, and his former boss, the deified David Petraeus. Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, doesn’t come off well, and we are told that he has never seen combat, but Woodward reserves most of his darts for Petraeus.

Petraeus emerges as unwilling to provide his president with any real options in Afghanistan other than a troop-intensive counterinsurgency. The Petraeus line is that he turned around the Iraq War so he could do the same thing in Afghanistan. His team appears to have circled the wagons intellectually, with little room for dissenting interpretations of the Iraq surge.

Woodward doesn’t seem sufficiently plugged into the military community to know it, but there is a substantial minority opinion that the surge succeeded not because of the wonders of counterinsurgency but because of a combination of mundane factors: the physical separation of Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad, our bribing the sheiks and the killing of a lot of bad guys. (See the writings of Col. Gian Gentile for the most cogent presentations of these arguments.)

There is also an ongoing debate in military intellectual circles on how to measure the effectiveness of counterinsurgency. The Petraeus camp, rather than participating in this essential discussion, has insisted that they need more time and more inputs before judging the results. Their unwillingness to formulate COIN principles in falsifiable terms makes the doctrine more like witchcraft than like science.

Petraeus also comes across as dangerously political, appearing on CNN on Veteran’s Day 2009 with a double amputee he “miraculously” healed—just before a Situation Room strategy review session. The Obama team was furious at this defiance of an implicit media silence period.

Even if Petraeus was right about the need for a “fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy” in Afghanistan—and I don’t think he was, or is—the evidence presented in the Woodward book raises serious questions about the quality of the advice Obama got from the military as well as his ability to evaluate it.

At least two former American commanders in Afghanistan disagree with Petraeus. There’s our Ambassador to Afghanistan, retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who served 30 months over two tours in Afghanistan. He famously warned the Obama administration on Nov. 6, 2009, by a later leaked cable that Petraeus’ plan could lead to “an indefinite large scale U.S. military role,” increasing “Afghan dependency.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2005, recently published an interesting take on the Woodward book, decrying both Obama’s decision to rely mainly on his national security staff without seeking outside experts and the “narrow set of options presented to the president by his military commanders”—nothing but “a population-centered counterinsurgency strategy” was really offered.

Another current running through the book is the utter worthlessness of our “ally” Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Even Petraeus calls the Karzai government “a criminal syndicate.”

Woodward is far from an old Afghan hand. One of his trips with National Security Advisor Jim Jones hit Afghanistan, India and Pakistan in just six days. Yet Woodward extracted from his brief look at Helmand an important truth that eluded the vastly more experienced war planners: “Why was 12% of the U.S. troop presence in an area with less than 1% of the population? What did protecting the population mean here?” He discusses the death of Marine Corporal Matthew Lembke, killed by a mine while patrolling a ghost town called Now Zad. “This was not counterinsurgency. There was no population to protect. It was an aimless stalemate in the town.”

Woodward clearly believes that his own good self is a figure of gravitas equivalent to four-star generals and presidents. His ego is right up there with Obama’s. But annoying as Woodward’s public persona can be, Obama’s Wars is largely free of chest-thumping. The faults Woodward is often savaged for—irrelevant detail, bland equivocation—are not to be found here. The narrative is pared down (an excellent idea given Woodward’s very modest descriptive gifts), and the author makes it abundantly clear throughout the book that he has doubts about the strategy of the Afghan War. (Woodward, for those who have forgotten, was initially in favor of the Iraq War but later turned against it.).

Meanwhile, despite Obama’s insistence that the U.S. will begin to draw down its forces next summer, the physical evidence suggests that the military is planning for a very long-term commitment indeed. CBS news reported on Nov. 22 that construction of American bases in Afghanistan is proceeding at a feverish pace. Projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars are in the works, some not due to be completed until late 2011. Perhaps Woodward will get another book out of this war. But if conservatives are wise, they will read this one closely.

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