Bob Woodward's new book about Barack Obama's presidency promises to create enormous headaches for a White House that's already reeling from a weak economic recovery and a surging Republican opposition, judging by accounts in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The accounts paint a portrait of a president sharply at odds with the military and deeply ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan. And they rip the veneer off an administration that had hitherto been known for its tight message discipline and a relative lack of infighting.
If you thought the Rolling Stone article that got Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired was damning, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Get a load of some of these nuggets:
- Neither Richard Holbrooke, the special advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan, nor retired Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the White House "war czar," believe in the current U.S. war strategy. Woodward quotes Holbrooke saying flatly "it can't work"; Lute apparently said that the Afghan strategy review didn't "add up" to the course the president ultimately chose. For his part, Vice President Joe Biden is quoted calling Holbrooke "the most egotistical bastard I've ever met."
- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has apparently been diagnosed with manic depression and is treating his condition with drugs (though perhaps not opium, as suggested some months back by the ousted U.N. diplomat Peter Galbraith). Woodward quotes Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador, as saying, "He's on his meds, he's off his meds." That'll go over well in Kabul.
- Axelrod apparently asked Obama, "How could you trust Hillary?" when Clinton was being considered to be secretary of state.
- In comments that fall into the category of "true but not a good idea to say," Obama tells Woodward, "We can absorb a terrorist attack. We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger."
- Plenty of people have the knives out for national security advisor Jim Jones, who in turn rips unnamed presidential aides as "the water bugs," "the Politburo," "the Mafia," and "the campaign set." I'm not sure what he means by this or to whom he's referring, but I have some educated guesses.
- Defense Secretary Bob Gates apparently doesn't like Jones's deputy, Tom Donilon, and thinks he would be a "disaster" as national security advisor. Gates was offended by a remark Donilon made about a general who isn't named in the book. Meanwhile, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright don't trust one other -- Cartwright worked closely with Biden on a proposal for a smaller Afghan surge force than was ultimately chosen.
- Gen. David Petraeus, the man now charged with saving Obama's ass in Afghanistan, thinks White House advisor David Axelrod is "a complete spin doctor." Petraeus also told his aides in May that the administration was "[expletive] with the wrong guy," though it's not clear what the context was.
The most explosive revelations, however, center around the Obama's decision last year to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but set a controversial July 2011 timeline for beginning to withdraw -- an awkward compromise that Woodward's sources seem eager to portray as very much the president's own. And Bob's got the goods: Obama, who comes across as deeply skeptical about the war and overwhelmingly concerned with finding an "exit strategy" rather than winning, personally dictated a six-page "terms sheet" outlining the conditions under which he was sending the troops. Woodward describes a tense Nov. 29, 2009, meeting where the president demanded that each participant read it and raise any objections "now." According to the Post, "The document -- a copy of which is reprinted in the book -- took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy's objectives, what the military was not supposed to do."
As Woodward describes it, the memo represented Obama's attempt to keep the military from boxing him in and pushing to escalate the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (a storyline we've heard before, though with fewer details). At one point, Woodward says, Obama told military leaders, "In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, 'We're doing fine, Mr. President, but we'd be better if we just do more.' We're not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] ... unless we're talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011." It's not clear just who's boxing in whom at the moment, though. The Post remarks on the irony that Petraeus has been tasked with implementing a strategy with which he clearly does not fully agree, but the general has been pretty savvy about thus far about establishing that the withdrawals will be "conditions-based."
Obama told Gates and Clinton at another meeting that he didn't want to stay in Afghanistan for a decade: "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars." He also made a similar remark to Lindsey Graham, telling the South Carolina senator, "I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party."
Republicans are going to have a field day with this one.