Shadow Government

How the Woodward saga could make for a Greek tragedy in the White House

If the full feature lives up to the trailer, Bob Woodward’s book about how President Obama has handled the commander-in-chief duties is a very damning indictment of the first two years. Reportedly, the Obama White House fully cooperated with Woodward in the hopes of securing more favorable treatment. But instead of enjoying a valentine, it seems ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If the full feature lives up to the trailer, Bob Woodward’s book about how President Obama has handled the commander-in-chief duties is a very damning indictment of the first two years. Reportedly, the Obama White House fully cooperated with Woodward in the hopes of securing more favorable treatment. But instead of enjoying a valentine, it seems they are better considered victims of a vendetta.

Some caveats are in order. When I finally get the chance to the read the full book, perhaps some of the more damaging quotes and anecdotes will seem less problematic in context. And as Woodward’s books on the Bush presidency show, sometimes the author’s argument overtakes the evidence — a problem that gets "fixed" in later installments. Thus, Woodward’s argument about a Bush White House in a "State of Denial," is rather thoroughly eviscerated by the reporting Woodward does in his sequel, The War Within. But in my experience, Woodward’s accounts are generally very well sourced and reliable in what they cover (the problems are usually in what they leave uncovered).  

To me, the account reads like a Greek tragedy, with the protagonists committing the very errors that hubris foreshadowed. In fact, if you want to compile a list of the debilities of the Obama administration that Woodward uncovers, just draw up a list of the Obama campaign’s favorite attack lines against the Bush administration. Thus we find:

  • A president "misleading" the American public. He campaigned on the claim that Afghanistan is a war of necessity that was under-resourced because President Bush ignored military advice, but he privately was forcing his national security team to embrace arbitrary resource and time constraints and to rush to a minimum footprint, and in doing so running roughshod over his military advisors.
  • Feuding advisors arguing as much over personality as over policy. The clashes between Rumsfeld, Powell, Cheney, and Rice in the first Bush term were legendary and, according to the beltway wisdom that fueled the Obama campaign, resulted in egregious strategic missteps. Woodward documents feuds every bit as personal and petty, indeed with more colorful quotes: a team comprised of "waterbugs," "Politburo," "mafia," and "the most egotistical bastard [VP Biden has] ever met." And, more ominously, the turf fights and mistrust seem to crisscross the civil-military divide as well as the official hierarchy, with Cabinet principals dissing deputies (look for the revenge of the deputies in later installments).
  • National security policy dictated more by partisan interests than by the national interest. Thus Woodward reports Obama imposing an artificial timeline on the Afghan surge because the President is adamant that "…I can’t lose the whole Democratic party."
  • The White House political team front and center in national security policy. Given how virulent Democrats attacked Karl Rove for eight years, it is striking how prominent his Obama counterpart, David Axelrod, is in all of the proceedings. Axelrod, not a national security policy lead, is responsible for managing the Woodward relationship even though the author’s focus was clearly on the wars. And Axelrod’s role in setting Afghan war strategy is so divisive it leads General Petraeus to dismiss him as "the complete spin doctor." Indeed, in perhaps the most surprising anecdote, the uber-cautious Petraeus is reported to say, over a glass of wine, that the Obama administration was "[expletive] with the wrong guy."
  • A White House discounting inconvenient intelligence warnings about terrorist attacks planned against the United States. In one of the most damning anecdotes from the previews, "Mr. Blair warned the president that radicals with American and European passports were being trained in Pakistan to attack their homelands. Mr. Emanuel afterward chastised him, saying, "You’re just trying to put this on us so it’s not your fault." Mr. Blair also skirmished with Mr. Brennan about a report on the failed airliner terrorist attack on Dec. 25. Mr. Obama later forced Mr. Blair out."
  • A White House ignoring a war where U.S. troops are engaged. Obama campaigned against the Bush administration’s "inattention" to the Afghan War, but Woodward appears to document an even more profound disregard for the ongoing war in Iraq.
  • A fundamental naiveté about military operations. Thus one finds a commander-in-chief willing to authorize a surge of combat troops but unwilling ("I am done doing this") to authorize the requisite enabling troops that make those combat troops effective. Or a commander-in-chief refusing ("Why do we keep having these meetings?") to revisit, review, and revise earlier decisions as the enemy reacts and as the situation on the ground develops.

Now in every case the Obama campaign’s critique of Bush was tendentious, resting as much on myth as on reality. Perhaps with time we will come to a similar judgment about Woodward’s account, which appears to have the Obama team committing the very sins of omission and commission that fueled their own earlier partisan attacks. But the pattern with Woodward’s Bush books is an ominous harbinger: the initial books were the most flattering and they got progressively more damning until the last one, which provided a very small measure of rehabilitation. If that pattern holds with the Obama team, the Woodward saga will be an epic Greek tragedy.

Update: Let’s make that: "Now in almost every case the Obama campaign’s critique of Bush was tendentious, resting as much on myth as on reality." I certainly do not think the Bush administration did everything right and that every criticism is completely without foundation. For instance, by all accounts, there really did seem to be debilitating personality conflicts that made policy debates less functional than they otherwise might have been — especially in the first term, but not limited to then. For precisely this reason, I take seriously the charges here of similar debilitating feuds in the Obama administration. President Obama did to, as his stern message to his team upon the dismissal of General McChrystal made clear. Perhaps things have improved markedly since then and the Woodward book is overtaken by events. We will know pretty soon if that is the case."

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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