Obama is the most poignant figure in Woodward's story
The poignant figure in Bob Woodward's story about Afghanistan is Barack Obama, the president who boasted during the campaign that he was going to fix Afghanistan and then discovered, month by month, just how hard that would be. By Woodward's account, Obama was looking for an exit from Afghanistan even as he sent 30,000 more U.S. combat troops there.
That's an untenable position. If the president doubted his strategy, he shouldn't have sent the troops. If he believes his war plan stands a chance of stabilizing Afghanistan so that he can transfer responsibility to the Afghans starting next July, then he must rally the public so that it understands and supports what he's doing.
Woodward shows us an Obama who is halfway to war, doubting his strategy even as he asks young men and women to die for it. That's the one thing a president must not do: Sacrifice lives for a policy he doesn't think can succeed.
This ambivalence is reflected all over the government.
It turns out that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, was the fall guy who took the rap for the Obama administration's backbiting on the war there. Woodward has documented that this internal feuding has been going on at every level of the government -- at the National Security Council, in the State Department and at the Pentagon.
President Obama has called his national-security leadership a "team of rivals," which gave this process of unending internal dissent a better name than it deserved. Even as Obama decided to take the country deeper into war in Afghanistan, officials continued to badmouth each other and give public support to a policy they privately doubted.
McChrystal's biggest mistake was simple inexperience with the media: He assembled a staff that, however adept it might have been at special operations, was dumb enough to let a reporter from Rolling Stone take notes while aides sat around in Paris drinking and taking potshots at administration officials back in Washington. Wrong, but hardly unique: Some of us wrote at the time that a fly on the wall at the NSC or State would have picked up remarks at least as bad. Woodward shows this.
Obama has tolerated this national-security food fight for longer than he should have. Now it's time to fix it, before the Afghanistan effort is completely lost. Gen. Jim Jones, the national security adviser, is likely to leave his post by the end of the year. That's a moment for making some other changes to deal with the frictions that Woodward's book describes.
The first priority is to fix the unwieldy structure known as the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, headed by Richard Holbrooke. Woodward's book recounts what every observer of this process has known, which is that there has been a running battle between Jones and Holbrooke, whose aides and acolytes regularly hurled insults at the other.
But, in truth, this would have ended in a feud even if the two positions had been held by Mother Theresa and Mahatma Ghandi. Holbrooke's "Af-Pak" cell was assigned a job of inter-agency coordination that, in our government, should be the work of the NSC staff, headed by the national security adviser. Holbrooke has rare gifts as a diplomat, but next year he should be in a different job -- and the Af-Pak cell should be part of the NSC, where it belongs.
| September 22, 2010; 3:48 PM ET
Categories: Ignatius | Tags: David Ignatius
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