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Obama’s WarsNowadays, reviewing so topical a book six long months after its publication may seem like commenting on Clarendon’s circa-1680 ‘Historie of the Greate Rebellion,’ but Bob Woodward’s ‘Obama’s Wars: The Inside Story’ still offers current value to the cognoscenti, especially in what is glossed over or remains unsaid.

What seems intended for foreign-policy wonks is, of course, merely ‘Search for Tomorrow’ moved inside the Beltway: a personality-driven soap-opera of what Private Parts told Corporal Punishment who briefed Major Screwup before Colonel  O’Truth told General Nuisance to inform the President; while the NDI said ‘CYA’ as NSC, DIA and CIA drank VSOP and, BTW, took credit ASAP. Why learn how America is losing a war when there is gossip on tap?

Amid no less than 380 pages of meetings, and at least three cringe-making examples of Woodward bragging about his reportorial prowess, are hidden four important insights never explained: two exhibit why modern American government is generally dysfunctional, and two display in particular why the military component of the Afghan War fails to succeed.

Happily enough, President Obama seems intelligent, focused and relatively unobsessed with politics: whether this is sanitisation by the Establishment Democrat author is impossible to say, but his portrayal of Obama seems plausible. Yet America’s 44th President spends the entire book, covering his first 18 months in the Oval Office, holding endless focus-groups as though he ran the Consumer Research Department for Ogilvy & Mather. Dozens of diplomatic, military and intelligence institutions, each with its own internally-warring personalities, plus Vice President Biden and then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, present differing, incompatible strategies while poor Obama keeps reshuffling the same pack of jokers into innumerable ‘consensus-building’ exercises – but never are we told adequately why Tweedle-dum wants 25,000 more troops sent surging into Afghanistan while Tweedle-dee demands 45,000, the major topic of the book. While this may be Woodward ‘dumbing down’ the events to focus commercially on personalities rather than policies, it may also be not so: in any meeting with any President there is never much time for minutia, and perhaps this was discussed only at a superficial and dissatisfactory level. Needless to say, the earnest Obama, hapless and hamstrung, splits the difference.

Were Obama recast as Franklin Roosevelt planning America’s participation in World War Two (which took the US four years to win compared to ten in Afghanistan so far), he would have dealt primarily with perhaps his Vice President and General Eisenhower, two intelligence agency chiefs domestic and foreign, one diplomatic department, cabinet secretaries for treasury, industry, labour and agriculture plus a smattering of other military leaders. Today’s formal US Intelligence Community alone comprises 16 major agencies not including, described elsewhere reputably, “tactical military intelligence and security organizations, as well as those responsible for security responses to transnational threats, to include terrorism, cyber warfare and computer security…weapons of mass destruction, narcotics trafficking, and international organized crime.” Obama needs a football stadium as a conference room, while the time lost in ‘building consensus’ across the elephantine, lumbering, American government may do more harm than five brigades of Taliban.

Second comes so-called ‘mission creep,’ government’s propensity to add on so many extraneous tasks that the job no longer resembles its original assignment. This is, of course, hastened and amplified by having so many agencies, with so many agendas that their respective leaders deem essential, so determining their current prestige and future budgets. It is not to imply that any of these intelligent and distinguished soldiers, diplomats and policy experts are anything less than patriots and professionals. Instead, each gets a seat at the table regardless, and each believes in the exaggerated importance of his own agency and its work: as Prince Metternich said, ‘we are all sophists of our passions,’ or as a blues-harmonica-playing US diplomat friend keeps telling me, ‘hey man, where you stand depends on where you sit.’ It is all just too big to function: a sclerotic dinosaur named Diplodocus Democraticus Americanus.

Two clear examples of mission creep surface midway through Woodward’s book, after the experts agree on the importance of stopping Pakistan military intelligence from harbouring Al Qaeda while they shelter, train, arm, fund and sometimes actually manage the Taliban who kill US soldiers (among others) across the border. Pakistan’s rather powerless president, Asif Zardari, whines that it will take years to control his own military and meanwhile the Pakistani economy is on the rocks. So, the White House ‘AfPak’ focus-group decides to rapidly develop Pakistan’s economy. Meanwhile, Pakistan military intelligence (playing both sides and waiting for the American gringos to tire and waddle off home leaving Afghanistan to ‘their’ bloodthirsty Taliban) weep crocodile-tears explaining how obsessed and even paranoid they are about India, fearing that Pakistan will be sandwiched between a pro-Indian Afghanistan and India herself. So, as the Pakistanis hoped, good Mr. Obama’s consensus-building exercise decides that America must first solve the India-Pakistan problem before the Pakistan generals will stop backing the Taliban. Money begins to flow to the Pak government for putative economic development, while more even money and weapons are given to America’s guileful enemies, the Pak military. Quoted without further elaboration, the then-National Director of Intelligence, Dennis Blair, complains that US policy toward Pakistan is ‘all carrots and no sticks.’ Then Blair gets fired, presumably for neither supporting the ‘consensus’ nor being a ‘team player.’

Such mission creep comes from two directions, which are clear in the book but may not be so to either the author or to President Obama. First is the US government’s unshakable conviction that they are endlessly rich, almighty and invincible, eager with scarcely a moment’s thought to take on building the economy of a fractious, complex, radicalised, manipulative, ill-educated, dysfunctional, piss-poor and profoundly corrupt Pakistan; or to solve the 63-year-old Indo-Pak enmity that itself involves several venerable and hitherto-unsolvable constituent issues (including Kashmir), some having roots in the Muslim occupation of Northern India that began almost 1,000 years ago. Second is that American government fundamentally has but two tools in its box: bury ‘em in money or bury ‘em in bombs. Sometimes these crude tools work but, for complex tasks, using either or both of them is tantamount to attempting eye-surgery with a Swiss Army knife. Behind mission creep – in Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere today – lies nothing short of Imperial Hubris, and ever behind Hubris follows Nemesis red of tooth and claw.

Two more of the book’s revelations relate directly to the Afghan War. The first solves the mystery of why America is still larding Pakistan with money and arms when Pakistan is in an obvious state of undeclared war against America, NATO and Afghanistan. Washington is scared that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons might ‘fall into the wrong hands’ and so, almost reflexively, keeps paying off the Pak generals still building the radical Islamist movements into whose hands the nukes may one day fall.

The second riddle solved is why America abandoned (now retired) General Stanley McChrystal’s core strategy to evict the Taliban from the many Afghan provinces in which the insurgents have weak or middling control, liberating most of the country while leaving for last the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Instead, no sooner had McChrystal been removed than the vast preponderance of newly-deployed American troops surged into Kandahar, deforesting much, levelling villages, creating many new enemies, taking heavy casualties and making small gains that may well be temporary against the elusive insurgents; while driving the Taliban to flee Kandahar, metastasize into the far North and further strengthen their grip elsewhere.

Even before McChrystal’s plan was leaked in September 2009, my colleagues in the Afghan agriculture ministry and other ministries worked feverishly alongside the US and NATO military, preparing to move government services into those districts to be cleared by Allied and Afghan troops; chiefly law-enforcement, justice, health, education, roads and farm support. Watching a neighbouring district get pummelled, and then seeing order and government services restored, would encourage Afghan families to avoid the violence and cut straight to the benefits, by suppressing their own thuggish Taliban-paid  cousins while encouraging the hard-core insurgents to return to Pakistan. Or if the task was beyond the local people, the Afghan and NATO troops (chiefly American) would move district to district with the Afghan civilian government and their foreign-aid development allies close behind them.  Instead, the American forces went straight back to head-banging in Kandahar and no US diplomat, NATO military officer or Afghan official could tell me why this sensible strategy was wholly abandoned.

The answer shows up midway through Obama’s Wars as an unelaborated one-liner. In Washington and far from the front, the American brass-hats all agreed that they had to confront the Taliban wherever the insurgents were strongest, which is Kandahar. No further discussion was reported, nor explanation provided. What could have been merely dumb-jock, locker-room mentality, could also have been McChrystal’s replacement, General David Petraeus, wanting to dump all remnants of his predecessor’s policy and nobody willing to gainsay the new commander. Or it could have been both, encouraged perhaps by senior officials with no firm understanding of the real situation in many Afghan provinces where, even still, tiny and easily-removable groups of thugs oppress a frightened populace with nowhere to turn. Importantly, no one seems to have opposed this foolish consensus, suggesting at how shallow a level these strategies may have been discussed in the White House focus-groups.

While Woodward does not say precisely that America is losing in Afghanistan, and while he reports nothing of abandoning the core element of McChrystal’s plan, he keeps quoting participants on various sides of the Pakistan problem – but without analysis and with no resolution, perhaps because the focus-groups keep meeting while the discussion goeth ever onward.

With debt mounting and its economy in relentless decline, with its government too big and too complex to work, amid hubris and malign incentives grown cancerous throughout its public institutions, one knows not whether to say to this once noble and vibrant but now so dysfunctional Republic, ‘O Tempora, O Mores’ or ‘Requiescat in Pace.’

Books related to the topic of this essay are available in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Steve,
    I'm not sure anybody else could have done this review, especially in its relation to our ill-defined wars. A couple of points of perspective may be in order. First, the history of US foreign policy making since Wilson, and especially since FDR, has taken place in a fog of progressive ideas that have never since at least 1939-40 been seriously debated. Our wars are fought as New Deal wars, which adds to the mission creep and the bureaucracy and all the other difficulties you pull out of a Woodward who like most liberal journalists doesn't even really know there are other ideas. Now that most "conservatives" have simply decided to conserve the last generation's progressivism there's not much prospect for change. Second, the managerial state so ably described and analyzed by James Burnham and Sam Francis and others has sucked so many of our formerly private and/or voluntary associations into the Washington beehive that the drones Woodward describes don't even remember that there is a different way of life. What you've done here, Steve, is to use Mr. Woodward's groping around in the progressive fog as a metaphor for the loss of self government, or what the forgotten founder Timothy Dwight called "competence," which he saw in abundance in New England villages a couple of hundred years ago.

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