October 02, 2010

On Woodward's Book: Heroes and Villains?

I had a really busy week at work and was only able to finish Bob Woodward's new bookir?t=abumuqa-20&l=as2&o=1&a=1439172498 this morning. I must say, I really enjoyed it. It is almost impossible to dispassionately judge the winners and losers of the book, in large part because your view on who is a hero and who is a villain will be informed by your opinion regarding the outcome of the policy debate in the fall of 2009. Folks who believe the president was wrong to commit 30,000 new troops will have sympathy for Doug Lute, Dick "Richard" Holbrooke and Joe Biden. Folks who argued for a more robust committment, meanwhile, will cheer along Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton, and Dave Petraeus.

For my part, I can see why the White House was not too concerned about this book. I think the president comes out of it looking really good. I was having a discussion last spring with a very distinguished retired intelligence officer who happens to think the president made the wrong decision in the fall of 2009. But, like me, he agreed that the national security decision-making process, unlike the one that led to the invasion of Iraq, worked well. You saw the formulation of policy and strategic objectives, the input from the various departments and agencies, an ongoing examination of assumptions, and a robust debate between policy-makers, diplomats, and military officers. All of the raw emotions on display in the Woodward book -- and your opinions about whether or not the decision was the right one -- should not obscure the fact that the system itself worked. And I, for one, actually admire the way the president ran the process, asked hard (and good) questions, and coolly analyzed his options in his Spock-like manner.

And I think the president got things about right in his own personal analysis: this was 2009, not 2003, and a robust time-and-resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign was simply not in the best interests of the United States given fiscal realities and U.S. interests elsewhere (both home and abroad). The United States and its allies should instead focus on limited counterinsurgency operations designed to buy time and space to rapidly build up Afghan security forces and allow a transition to something that looks more like a security force assistance mission with a counterterrorism component. (You'll note, though, that the president deemed the words "counterinsurgency" and "counterterrorism" so loaded he simply banned them.)

If I had to fault anyone in the narrative it would be the uniformed military in Washington, DC. I don't think the uniformed military conspired to box in the president, but I do think they failed to provide credible alternate strategies until too late in the process. (The only credible alternative was provided by McChrystal, late in the game, after he was asked what he would do if he did not get the additional 30,000 troops.) I think there was both a failure of imagination and an all-too-familiar bureaucratic inflexibility in the Pentagon that did not serve the president well. (Even after he made his decisions, when the Pentagon simply couldn't wrap its head around the fact that no, 30,000 really does mean 30,000.)

Speaking of Stan McChrystal, is he a surprise winner in all of this? Doug Lute is quoted as believing that McChrystal did not have a conspiratorial bone in his body (I agree) despite plenty of nonsense from the Left to that effect, and after a U.S. Army inquiry cleared him of any wrong-doing in the L'Affair Rolling Stan, Eliot Cohen asked the following:

"I don't get it. The president fired one of our truly great commanders not for things that he said but for tolerating indiscretion, disloyalty and disrespect among his subordinates -- but do these people apply anything remotely like that standard to themselves?"

I'm not as upset by the book as Eliot is, obviously. I think the disagreements and emotions aired in the book are normal for any group of men and women trying to wrap their heads around a very difficult war and determine whether or not the addtional committment of U.S. lives and other resources is worth it. I'm glad the debate was so intense and would have been disappointed if it had not been. And maybe I'm too sanguine about these things, and I'm almost certainly in the minority in the following conclusion, but I finished the book with a higher degree of confidence about the national security decision-making process than I had at the beginning.

Update: For what it's worth, Steve Coll's take on the book largely mirrors my own.


On a completely unrelated note, four veterans killed themselves last weekend at Fort Hood alone. My fellow veterans, if you are in a bad place this weekend and don't think you can make it until Monday, please call the following number before you do anything you can't take back: 1-800-273-8255 (and press 1). Please, brothers and sisters, the world and the United States are both better places with you in them.