The White House and Woodward

The White House and Woodward

By Peter Feaver

The Obama administration has just been Woodwarded, as in Bob Woodwarded. If his Washington Post report is accurate, General Jones, the National Security Advisor committed a serious civil-military relations mistake that could haunt the administration over the coming year. Up until now the administration has been nearly pitch-perfect on the issue of how to talk to the military about securing military advice in high command decision making and how to talk about the military advice they get. But this report, which seems authoritative because it reads like a verbatim transcript of the meeting (is Bob Woodward on the trip?), sounds a very discordant note.

The note came during a meeting General Jones had with U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan. He was talking about the importance of the non-military aspects of the strategy — we can’t win in Afghanistan by force of arms, and that sort of thing. So far so good. Then there is this extraordinary exchange, as reported by Bob Woodward:

During the briefing, [Marine Brigadier General] Nicholson had told Jones that he was "a little light," more than hinting that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. "We don’t have enough force to go everywhere," Nicholson said.

But Jones recalled how Obama had initially decided to deploy additional forces this year. "At a table much like this," Jones said, referring to the polished wood table in the White House Situation Room, "the president’s principals met and agreed to recommend 17,000 more troops for Afghanistan." The principals — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gates; Mullen; and the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair — made this recommendation in February during the first full month of the Obama administration. The president approved the deployments, which included Nicholson’s Marines.

Soon after that, Jones said, the principals told the president, "oops," we need an additional 4,000 to help train the Afghan army.

"They then said, ‘If you do all that, we think we can turn this around,’ " Jones said, reminding the Marines here that the president had quickly approved and publicly announced the additional 4,000.

Now suppose you’re the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more force. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel?

Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing.

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF — which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?"

Nicholson and his colonels — all or nearly all veterans of Iraq — seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get."

There is nothing wrong from a civil-military relations point of view for President Obama to decide that he is not going to approve any more troop deployments to Afghanistan. That is absolutely within his rights as commander-in-chief and, indeed, he alone has the political-military competence to adjudicate across all of the risk trade-offs that such a decision would entail.  It is his right to make that call even if his judgment is wrong about whether the new troops are in fact necessary to carry out the strategy. The president has a right to be wrong about commander-in-chief decisions.

But it is wrong for him, or his senior staff, to tell (or signal, or hint, or suggest to) the military that they, the military, should censor their advice and judgments based on what they think the President ultimately will decide. If it is the BGEN Nicolson’s military judgment that he needs more troops to execute the mission, he should — no, he must — convey that information up his chain of command and the President must be made aware of that piece of military advice. Nicolson’s military judgment could be superceded by a more senior military commander (say, General Petraeus) who may have a bigger-picture military perspective.  But a wise commander-in-chief wants to at least know about the perspectives of the lower ranking officers.

And, above all, a wise commander-in-chief does not want the military hearing from civilian presidential advisors (and in this context, retired General Jim Jones is a civilian presidential advisor) that they should not be candid in their advice lest it tick off the president or the secretary of defense. If Woodward’s (and others) earlier reporting on the Bush years is accurate, the military got that impression, at least from Secretary Rumsfeld, and this had a deleterious effect on civil-military relations and on policymaking. In my judgment, the notion that President Bush did not want to hear whether the battlefield commanders believed they needed more troops was false; he did want to hear that advice and would have been appalled if one of his advisors had told the military, "don’t ask for this because it will make the President angry."

According to Bob Woodward, that is exactly what happened recently in Afghanistan. I expect the Obama team will have to go into some serious damage control to deal with this story. If accurate, what is needed is an unambiguous statement from the President himself: "Give me your candid military advice, even or especially if you think the advice runs counter to what you think I will decide. Let me make the decisions. I will not always approve every request you send my way, but I will never approve of you trying to hide bad news from me because you think it will make me mad."