Interview: Bob Woodward

On Friday, the White House parted ways with a very publicly unhappy national security advisor and many blamed his hasty pre-election exit on the account in journalist Bob Woodward's new book, Obama's Wars. Woodward tells Foreign Policy what he makes of Jim Jones's rocky tenure, why the president "is his own chief foreign policy strategist" -- and how he's still doesn't trust his generals.

Brad Barket/Getty Images
Brad Barket/Getty Images
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Foreign Policy: The big news yesterday is national security advisor Jim Jones announcing his departure from the White House. This is something that's been talked about almost from the very moment that he took the job in the beginning of the administration. There are people inside the White House suggesting that the account of his tenure as portrayed in your book perhaps hastened the departure. What's your sense of it? He obviously wasn't happy in the job.

Bob Woodward: The account of his tenure squares with everyone else's. And he warned President Obama at the beginning, saying you know, "I was not a very good staff guy." I think he wanted to be secretary of state but he said when he'd been the aide to Bill Cohen, secretary of defense, or to the Marine commandant, it wasn't kind of his thing and, you know, they picked him anyway. As everyone knew, he was outside the circle.

FP: Is this a story about presidents needing to be close to their national security advisors?

Foreign Policy: The big news yesterday is national security advisor Jim Jones announcing his departure from the White House. This is something that’s been talked about almost from the very moment that he took the job in the beginning of the administration. There are people inside the White House suggesting that the account of his tenure as portrayed in your book perhaps hastened the departure. What’s your sense of it? He obviously wasn’t happy in the job.

Bob Woodward: The account of his tenure squares with everyone else’s. And he warned President Obama at the beginning, saying you know, "I was not a very good staff guy." I think he wanted to be secretary of state but he said when he’d been the aide to Bill Cohen, secretary of defense, or to the Marine commandant, it wasn’t kind of his thing and, you know, they picked him anyway. As everyone knew, he was outside the circle.

FP: Is this a story about presidents needing to be close to their national security advisors?

BW: Obama told people he thought it was important to pick somebody who’s kind of not part of the political in-crowd. Obviously he’s gone the other way now with [new national security advisor Tom] Donilon so it’s interesting to see.

FP: The one thing that neither of these two figures is — either Tom Donilon or Jim Jones — is a big strategist type. You don’t have anybody who’s coming in with a grand vision — it seems — for what the Obama administration’s footprint in the world should be.

BW: I think that’s right and it is now clear Obama’s his own chief foreign policy strategist. He designed the Afpak option himself. Interestingly — and no one has kind of put this together because it’s a little complex — but he took the Gates memo of October 30th in which Gates said "Oh, we could do 30,000 or 35,000 troops" and Gates clearly did not see it as an option he was offering but the president latched onto it and he latched onto what Gates said, "we can begin thinning out forces in 18-24 months." And like somebody grabbing onto whatever he could, the president took that and then set the withdrawal dates so in a real sense Obama’s his own strategist on these things.

FP: A lot of the commentary about the book has seized upon that and has made the point that it’s very unusual the way in which Obama has interacted with the Pentagon, that he’s been much more aggressive than say President Bush was in not just choosing options presented by the Pentagon but trying to create his own in the White House.

BW: Which he did and of course if it works, he’s going to be a strategic genius. If it doesn’t work, a lot of Republicans, Democrats and the military people are going to say "See, none of us recommended this."

FP: That’s the account that really comes through very clearly and wasn’t really sharply defined before this portrayal.

BW: Yes, I don’t think it was out there that he couldn’t get options from the Pentagon, that he laid into them and said "I want more options" and actually said "It’s unacceptable that I’m not getting them."

FP: Is that the most surprising thing that you encountered in reporting the book? What did you expect to find in the national security process that you didn’t find?

BW: You know I try not to expect. … I think that the point that Steve Coll made in commentary on this is right: that it’s Pakistan. That we keep talking about Afghanistan, but we better think more and more about Pakistan. It is the powder keg of South Asia and the whole world. I remember studying World War I history in high school and college, you know, the Balkans, the powder keg of Europe and it blew up. Look at what World War I was, a prolonged international calamity. And you talk to the intelligence people and they’re really worried about where this is going. Where Pakistan is going.

FP: You have looked at the national security process very carefully, across multiple presidencies. How would you say the Obama version of handling a challenge like the wars, how’s it different from Bush? How’s it different from the Clinton era?

BW: Well there’s the cliché that I keep talking about — that Bush is the gut player and he always said "I’m not a textbook player." And Obama’s all textbook. And we think no gut but actually I think Obama’s gut on this is very clear: He does not like war and he wants out. And bringing Donilon into the National Security Council as the national security advisor is a real kind of declaration of we’re going…you know, the president’s view is going to be more controlling here. And it just couldn’t be clearer. Donilon has a world view that’s very consistent with the president’s. Both of them view the war in Afghanistan as an investment, like you would spend $8 billion on a roads project and you know, get the road done then you’re out of there. And the president has made it clear this is a limited investment in terms of money and time and the military doesn’t like that. It’s an axiom, that you don’t do these things on a timetable and there’s a lot of evidence to support that.

FP: You mentioned Donilon and how close his views are to Obama himself. But Secretary Gates is quoted in the book as saying he thought Donilon would be a "disaster." What does that mean, do you think?

BW: Well it says that he felt Donilon didn’t understand the military or respect them enough. Did you see the New York Times this morning, where they talked to Gates and Gates said, "Yes there were tensions, Donilon called, we had a meeting, we’ve ironed it out, everything’s is fine." It’s confirmation.

FP: What role do you think politics is playing in this?

BW: Presidents are political animals obviously, so this is part of what’s going on.

BW: Donilon and [retired Lt. Gen. Doug] Lute are the real skeptics about whether this is working or not [in Afghanistan.] Lute is very much trusted and respected by the president. He was in there saying in the strategy review, you know, "You don’t need to do this. It’s not a calculated risk but a gamble." And the four risk factors he lays out are in the secret orders for the monthly review and all four of them aren’t going very well.  Now here’s the big question, I think, in all of this: Can miracle Dave Petraeus…

Can he put Humpty Dumpty back together again? He did it in Iraq and he’s a phenomenal general. And so I intentionally end the book with him kind of saying "Gee," back in 2007 when he’s in Iraq, "Why didn’t I take that Afghan job?"

FP: Do you think he and Obama have established a real working relationship yet?

BW: There’s not much evidence of it. I thought one of the most telling moments when I talked to Obama was when I asked about [appointing Gen. Stanley] McChrystal, and he only met with him for ten minutes. I said, but this is your Eisenhower. He would not accept that and he went off saying "I’m not FDR" and "This isn’t World War II" and so forth. And I just said to him, "But this is your war" and it’s personal relations that count. The point is to spend ten minutes with the guy who’s going to take over the war? I don’t get that. But then he gets on a plane and goes every week on these campaign swings, you know, to send a political message of the day? It’s a misallocation of time.

FP: What do you think of the role Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is playing right now?

BW: She supports the military. And that reduced the maneuvering room [for Obama] in a big way.

FP: Now what do you make, of the big hullabaloo over Mark Penn’s comments to you about whether Obama would contemplate putting Clinton on the ticket instead of Biden. Does that mean that there’s any
such contemplation actually occurring? What’s your view at this point? Did this get misinterpreted?

BW: Well I said it’s on the table but you know, it’s like, you know, a book’s on the table, you may read it in the summer. Didn’t mean they were talking about it then? I mean obviously they’re worried about the November election but I mean Penn’s point is a profound one in terms of electoral politics. Obama might need Hillary on the ticket.

FP: But you’re not saying you have any independent knowledge of sources telling you that right now President Obama is contemplating such a thing.

BW: No, of course not. But look at the numbers. The numbers are stunning in those four areas that Penn identifies: with voters who are women, Latinos, working class and seniors. In the primaries she was two to one with those groups over Obama. Now, of course there’s a negative side to Hillary Clinton also but the point there is there’s a political calculation in this and it was quite humorous to talk to Hillary’s aides about this. "No, no politics had absolutely nothing to do with her decision to become Secretary of State. She has no political ambition. She’s out of that game. She’s not running for anything" and so forth. And then you point out to them that part of her clout and weight abroad is connected, that every time she goes anywhere, the leadership in any of those countries sees a possible future president. And that enhances her stature. So it’s so funny — so they have to deny it but not too much.

Susan Glasser is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy; former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post; and co-author, with Peter Baker, of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.

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