Obama: Tough commander in chief or insecure armchair general?

Barack Obama's White House aides have been furiously spinning Bob Woodward's new book as one that paints a positive image of the president, a wartime leader making touch decisions in the interest of the American people.

Some may see that image in Woodward's first of three adaptations of the book, published in today's Washington Post. But once could also see a president who doesn't trust his military advisors and treats them a little bit like the help. Consider this anecdote about the Afghan strategy review:

He was looking for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out. His top three military advisers were unrelenting advocates for 40,000 more troops and an expanded mission that seemed to have no clear end. When his national security team gathered in the White House Situation Room on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2009, for its eighth strategy review session, the president erupted.

"So what's my option? You have given me one option," Obama said, directly challenging the military leadership at the table, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command.

"We were going to meet here today to talk about three options," Obama said sternly. "You agreed to go back and work those up."

Mullen protested. "I think what we've tried to do here is present a range of options."

Obama begged to differ. Two weren't even close to feasible, they all had acknowledged; the other two were variations on the 40,000.

Silence descended on the room. Finally, Mullen said, "Well, yes, sir."

Later on, we find Obama telling Gates that 30,000 more troops was his final answer:

"I've got a request for 4,500 enablers sitting on my desk," Gates said. "And I'd like to have another 10 percent that I can send in, enablers or forces, if I need them."

"Bob," Obama said, "30,000 plus 4,500 plus 10 percent of 30,000 is" - he had already done the math - "37,500." Sounding like an auctioneer, he added, "I'm at 30,000."

Obama had never been quite so definitive or abrupt with Gates.

"I will give you some latitude within your 10 percentage points," Obama said, but under exceptional circumstances only.

"Can you support this?" Obama asked Gates. "Because if the answer is no, I understand it and I'll be happy to just authorize another 10,000 troops, and we can continue to go as we are and train the Afghan national force and just hope for the best."

"Hope for the best." The condescending words hung in the air.

So which is it? Tough commander in chief or insecure armchair general? I suspect this will be a question for history to answer.


The show will go on?

It ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Israel's 10-month settlement freeze expires at midnight Jerusalem time today, and rather than the explosion many feared -- Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's withdrawal  from the talks, fresh violence from Hamas, a provocation from the settlers -- it looks like the moratorium will disappear with little drama. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held his ground, while dispatch his defense minister, Ehud Barak, to offer compromise proposals that he could always disavow. Meanwhile, he urged the settlers to "show restraint" and asked his cabinet to keep quiet.

Abbas, who had vowed in no uncertain terms that he wouldn't stay at the table unless the freeze was extended, instead kicked the decision to the Arab League, which gave him political cover to join the talks in the first place. It seems likely Arab governments will swallow their pride and instruct Abbas to continue.

Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn says that Netanyahu is emerging the big winner in this showdown, and that may be true. He's conceded nothing while deflecting U.S. and international pressure to give way on the settlements. His coalition remains intact, and he's proven that the United States, with all its might and power, can't push tiny Israel around (at least, not before the midterm elections). Barack Obama took a huge risk calling on Israel to extend the moratorium at the U.N. Thursday, and now he looks ineffectual and weak.

In the end, though, this isn't supposed to be about winners and losers. If Netanyahu is serious about peace -- and it remains an open question whether he is -- he'll have to make painful concessions that probably will rip his government apart. There are at least 60,000 settlers who will have to leave their homes in the event of a peace deal, according to the estimates I've seen. The last time settlers were uprooted, in Gaza, it took several thousand Israeli troops to evict them.

As for Abbas, I don't envy the man. If he's equally serious about peace, he'll need to tell his people that the "right of return" is dead, and that they'll need to give up on the notion that Palestine will control its own border or have many of the other prerogatives of normal states. All the while, Hamas and various other Palestinian factions will be eagerly looking for him to fail.

For now, I guess, the talks will limp ahead.