Bob Woodward strikes again! (McChrystal assessment edition)

Bob Woodward strikes again! (McChrystal assessment edition)

By Peter Feaver

The Obama Administration has been Woodwarded again, this time with a major scoop: Bob Woodward has a major front-page story that is more or less a summary precis of General McChrystal’s confidential Initial Assessment of the Afghan situation.  Remarkably, the Post makes this document also available, with slight excisions, here. Obviously, there is much to chew over here and I trust my Shadow Government colleagues will be chewing. I have a few initial assessments of my own:

1. It is not good to have a document like this leaked into the public debate before the President has made his decision. Whether you favor ramping up or ramping down or ramping laterally, as a process matter, the Commander-in-Chief ought to be able to conduct internal deliberations on sensitive matters without it appearing concurrently on the front pages of the Post. I assume the Obama team is very angry about this, and I think they have every right to be.

2. A case could be made that the Obama team tempted fate by authorizing Bob Woodward to travel with General Jones (cf. “whisky, tango, foxtrot”) in the first place and then sitting on this report for nearly a month without a White House response. You cannot swing a dead cat in Washington without meeting someone who was briefed on at least part of the McChrystal assessment, and virtually every one of those folks is mystified as to why the White House has not responded as of yet. The White House will have to respond now, but I stand by my first point: leaks like this make it harder to for the Commander-in-Chief to do deliberate national security planning.

3. Without knowing the provenance of the leak, it is impossible to state with confidence what the motives were. For my part, I would guess that this leak is an indication that some on the Obama team are dismayed at the White House’s slow response and fear that this is an indication that President Obama is leaning towards rejecting the inevitable requests for additional U.S. forces that this report tees up. By this logic, the leak is designed to force his hand and perhaps even to tie his hands. 

4. The leak makes it harder for President Obama to reject a McChrystal request for additional troops because the assessment so clearly argues for them. The formal request is in a separate document, apparently, but it is foreshadowed on every page of the Initial Assessment. Presumably, the McChrystal assessment and request is shared by Petraeus and, I am told, also by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That does not make it irrefutably correct, but it does make this issue now the defining moment in civil-military relations under President Obama’s watch. Obama has the authority and the responsibility to make a decision that runs counter to what his military leaders are requesting, but it is a very difficult thing for him to do.

5. The toughest part in the report from the point of view of the Obama White House is the twin claim that (i) under-resourcing the war could cause the war to be lost, and (ii) the resources need to show up in the next year. The former puts the responsibility for success/failure squarely on the desk of the President and the latter, because of the long lead times needed to send additional resources into the theater, says that failure could result from choices made or not made in the next few weeks. And it said that a few weeks ago.

6. Paradoxically, however, the report does not make it impossible for President Obama to reject the likely military request for additional forces. Because the report is so candid about all of the challenges we face in Afghanistan, many of the arguments against additional forces are substantiated somewhere in the report: the myriad failures of the Afghan government, the self-defeating restrictions imposed on NATO forces, etc. The only anti-surge argument that I have not seen substantiated (though I read this quickly, so I may have missed something) is the extraordinarily seductive one that suggests we can afford to simply walk away from Afghanistan and conduct “off-shore-counter-terrorism-operations” indefinitely.

7. This document will remind anyone who worked on the issue of the internal debate over the surge strategy in Iraq circa Fall 2006. While the Bush administration Iraq Strategy Review did not produce a 66-page report that leaked, we covered much this same terrain and wrestled with many of the same thorny trade-offs and uncertain bets. The report is basically calling for an Iraq-type surge gambit, asking President Obama to do more or less what President Bush did in 2007: (i) change the strategy, (ii) adequately resource the new strategy, and (iii) overcome the strong domestic political opposition to doing (i) and (ii). If successful, the McChrystal assessment claims that this will buy time to allow for a safer eventual shift back to a train and transition strategy. It will not win the war in the short-run, but it will shift the trajectory of the war and allow for the possibility that our side can prevail in the long run. This is eerily similar to how the pro-surge group within the Bush team thought of the Iraq surge.

The domestic political-military stakes have been ramped up considerably with this leak. It is not quite a 3-AM-phone-call crisis, but it is probably the most serious national security test the Obama team has confronted thus far. I trust they will address it with the same care and candor that characterizes the McChrystal assessment itself. We will know very soon if that is the case.

Update: After I sent in this blogpost, I read the companion article in the Washington Post that appears, to me at least, to tip Woodward’s hand on the backstory to the leak. Here is the crucial bit:

… But Obama’s deliberative pace — he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal’s report so far — is a source of growing consternation within the military. "Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let’s have a discussion," one Pentagon official said. "Will you read it and tell us what you think?" Within the military, this official said, "there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration."

The civil-military dimensions of the challenge confronting President Obama could hardly be more clearly spelled out. This is significant and serious.