Tabloid journalism in the Washington Post

Tabloid journalism in the Washington Post

The Washington Post has run a few excerpts from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s latest book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. It contains such shockers as the revelation that inter-service rivalry at the Pentagon led to bureaucratically sub-rational outcomes. As Captain Renault said to Rick, "I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

Rajiv gets a few things right. He claims that "U.S. commanders thought that managing the NATO alliance was more important than winning the war." A lot of the senior brass seems never to have fully internalized the strategic importance of the war in Afghanistan, despite two presidents insisting that it was a vital American national security interest. When Bush and Obama can agree on something, you have to at least consider they may be right.

But much of the book dwells on interagency rivalry in Washington during the early months of the Obama administration, when I served as a staffer on the NSC. Here, Chandrasekaran embellishes, dramatizes, and exaggerates until the story is no longer recognizable.

In Chandrasekaran’s telling, there was an epic rivalry between the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and the NSC’s special coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Doug Lute. I worked for Lute during some of the period covered by Chandrasekaran’s story.

There was plainly a rivalry of sorts, but Chandrasekaran blows it out of all proportion and neglects obvious historical and institutional factors at play. The NSC and the State Department have been rivals since the NSC was created in 1947, and the rivalry endures across policy issues and regardless of personalities. Add to the standard institutional competition the fact that the Obama administration decided to have two separate ‘special’ leads for Af-Pak policy, one at State and one at NSC, and it is unsurprising that the two offices clashed over their confusing, overlapping and unclear roles. That’s the natural consequence of the president’s poor managerial decisions and the administration’s neglect of clear institutional organization.

Instead of recognizing these obvious, if un-dramatic, facts, Chandrasekaran claims that the rivalry between Lute and Holbrooke cost the United States the opportunity to reach a peace deal with the Taliban in 2009-10. He claims that "The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield," in part because of the rivalry. The claim is false. No such peace deal was within reach. Chandrasekaran even concedes that "It was not clear that [the Taliban’s] leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, wanted to talk" to the United States. Indeed, despite Lute and Holbrooke’s differences, they agreed on the fundamental policy of pursuing talks to end the war and the Obama administration has, however falteringly, made some progress towards that goal.

But Chandrasekaran goes so far as to say that "[National Security Advisor James] Jones and Lute hated the thought of Holbrooke basking in the spotlight as he did after peace in the Balkans." The accusation that two professional military men would let a personality conflict obstruct the president’s ability to wage and win a war is petty, unfounded and worthy of the National Enquirer, not the Washington Post.

In fact, Lute went out of his way to re-engineer the interagency process and make a great display of co-chairing a new higher-level interagency forum with Holbrooke, something neither Chandrasekaran nor Woodward picked up on in their respective books. Lute and Holbrooke kept their disagreements out of the public eye, as professionals are supposed to do.

Lute and Holbrooke clashed, but that’s what bureaucrats do, especially when there are real issues at stake that they disagree about. Chandrasekaran relates that Lute believed that Holbrooke "had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government." That’s essentially true; I don’t know many who would dispute that account. Holbrooke’s histrionics and his belief that the U.S. should have tilted the playing field in the 2009 Afghan presidential election were responsible for much of the damage to U.S.-Afghan relations in the early years of the Obama administration.

I have always admired what Lute was able to accomplish during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations. He provided crucial continuity during the first war-time presidential transition since 1968. He cooperated with the incoming administration as a foreign policy professional, embodying the non-partisan ethos that the community used to stand for. And, when the Obama team inexplicably demoted his position, he accepted it with a rare humility not often found among bureaucrats. A lesser man would have resigned to nurse his wounded pride. I like to think that he stayed because he believed, rightly, that the job was too important to put his ego first.

That doesn’t mean Lute’s record is flawless. I have been a frequent critic of the Obama administration’s record on Afghanistan, some of which inevitably must reflect on Lute as the administration’s longest-serving point-man on Afghan policy. But that is an honest disagreement on policy, the sort of thing that should drive public debate. Chandrasekaran may sell books with his tabloid accusations, but history will set the record straight.