Shadow Government

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Woodward book: Obama wanted too much for too little in Afghanistan

I agree with Peter’s criticisms of the White House as portrayed in Bob Woodward‘s new book. I would, however, amplify one more. The White House is attempting to make the President Obama sound heroic for insisting on an exit strategy, when in fact the president’s behavior — as described in Woodward’s book — betrays a ...

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

I agree with Peter’s criticisms of the White House as portrayed in Bob Woodward‘s new book. I would, however, amplify one more.

The White House is attempting to make the President Obama sound heroic for insisting on an exit strategy, when in fact the president’s behavior — as described in Woodward’s book — betrays a discouraging incapacity as commander in chief. The president repeatedly presses for an exit strategy and resents the military for not "giving him options." But it is the president’s responsibility to set the exit strategy — i.e., the political objectives whose achievement will determine cessation of our effort. And Obama did; he just didn’t recognize it. Obama’s overriding objective is handing over the work being done by the U.S. military as quickly as possible to the Afghan government. What is odd are the president’s repeated refrains that the military should tell him what the political objectives for war termination should be.

The military’s job is to develop military plans to implement the president’s political objectives. As recounted in the book, the military outlined what resources it would take to achieve the president’s goal: 20,000 additional troops with high risk, 40,000 additional troops with low risk, and time. These were the options given by then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and were endorsed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. This was, however, a much higher price than the White House wanted to pay. The excerpts from Woodward’s book make the subsequent cavalcade of strategy meetings sound like Petrucchio from Taming of the Shrew coercing Katherine into saying the sun is in the sky at night — but in this case, the politicos were trying to get the military to lower their assessment of the requirements.

We should actually be encouraged that today’s military leadership is professional enough to not politicize their judgment. Civilians may not like the answers the military gives, but it’s the military’s job to give their independent advice.

What the president’s staff — and in particular National Security Advisor Jim Jones — failed to do is tell the president "what you want is not achievable at the price you’re willing to pay." When the book comes out, it may illustrate that Jim Jones and war czar Doug Lute’s reservations about the strategy were a good faith effort to do just this; I hope that proves to be the case. If not, they have served the president poorly.

From the book, it sounds like one senior officer, General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried hard to oblige in finding politically palatable "options," but was shut down by his boss, Admiral Mullen (who is portrayed in the book as being upset for Cartwright "going behind his back"). Needless to say, General Cartwright is rumored to be "close to the president" and an odds-on favorite to succeed Admiral Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

White House aides during the review talked resentfully of the military "boxing the president in." What Woodward’s book makes clear is that the president’s own rhetoric about Afghanistan boxed him in. Obama is blaming the military for the difficulties in acheiving the objectives he set — the objectives he solemnly told the nation were crucial for our national security.

I agree with Peter’s criticisms of the White House as portrayed in Bob Woodward‘s new book. I would, however, amplify one more.

The White House is attempting to make the President Obama sound heroic for insisting on an exit strategy, when in fact the president’s behavior — as described in Woodward’s book — betrays a discouraging incapacity as commander in chief. The president repeatedly presses for an exit strategy and resents the military for not "giving him options." But it is the president’s responsibility to set the exit strategy — i.e., the political objectives whose achievement will determine cessation of our effort. And Obama did; he just didn’t recognize it. Obama’s overriding objective is handing over the work being done by the U.S. military as quickly as possible to the Afghan government. What is odd are the president’s repeated refrains that the military should tell him what the political objectives for war termination should be.

The military’s job is to develop military plans to implement the president’s political objectives. As recounted in the book, the military outlined what resources it would take to achieve the president’s goal: 20,000 additional troops with high risk, 40,000 additional troops with low risk, and time. These were the options given by then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and were endorsed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. This was, however, a much higher price than the White House wanted to pay. The excerpts from Woodward’s book make the subsequent cavalcade of strategy meetings sound like Petrucchio from Taming of the Shrew coercing Katherine into saying the sun is in the sky at night — but in this case, the politicos were trying to get the military to lower their assessment of the requirements.

We should actually be encouraged that today’s military leadership is professional enough to not politicize their judgment. Civilians may not like the answers the military gives, but it’s the military’s job to give their independent advice.

What the president’s staff — and in particular National Security Advisor Jim Jones — failed to do is tell the president "what you want is not achievable at the price you’re willing to pay." When the book comes out, it may illustrate that Jim Jones and war czar Doug Lute’s reservations about the strategy were a good faith effort to do just this; I hope that proves to be the case. If not, they have served the president poorly.

From the book, it sounds like one senior officer, General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried hard to oblige in finding politically palatable "options," but was shut down by his boss, Admiral Mullen (who is portrayed in the book as being upset for Cartwright "going behind his back"). Needless to say, General Cartwright is rumored to be "close to the president" and an odds-on favorite to succeed Admiral Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

White House aides during the review talked resentfully of the military "boxing the president in." What Woodward’s book makes clear is that the president’s own rhetoric about Afghanistan boxed him in. Obama is blaming the military for the difficulties in acheiving the objectives he set — the objectives he solemnly told the nation were crucial for our national security.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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