Friday, October 8, 2010

Obama and the Generals

Bob Woodward has been on a lot of TV programs in the last week, touting his new book, "Obama's Wars" and the picture he paints of the relationship between the White House, the Defense Secretary, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not pretty. Woodward had access to all the major players, including the President and Generals Petraeus and Mullen. He was free to read memos and to talk to everyone.
What he learned was that the generals have not been giving Obama the full picture about Afghanistan or Pakistan. That is, they won't give him options but present their view as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. This was at least true about how many troops were needed in Afghanistan and what their role would be. Add to this the fact, noted by Woodward, that the President does not like war, has no feel for it, and would prefer to do the minimum at all times, and you have the picture.
Vice President Biden has better relationships with the generals than does the President, he cultivates them on a personal basis, something Obama does not do, and Biden gets options out of them that are not offered to the President. In fact, Woodward says Biden often has the better solutions. In addition, Defense Secretary Gates has the position of power because if the President doesn't like his suggestion, he offers to resign and Obama immediately defers to him.
The result is that Obama and his staff don't have viable options and, therefore, cannot make the best decisions. Woodward says Obama is not a good wartime president and probably does not understand how to be one.
We are all sympathetic to the President's not liking war. Nobody does. But, he made the decision to send more troops into Afghanistan and he did so with incomplete information and no alternatives.
It makes you wonder who is watching out for the US troops on the ground in harm's way and what orders they actually receive. Woodward mentions some of them but you should read the book to get those details, which are also not pretty. I note here only the fact that one of the generals said in a public meeting that he does not know what the goals in Afghanistan are or how we are going to achieve them.
It makes me remember President Truman and General MacArthur during the Korean "war." MacArthur was insubordiate in not following the President's orders and he was fired, even if his opinion was probably the correct one. In 2010, we have the picture of a president whose general officers are insubordinate for not agreeing to give him alternatives and stonewalling when he asks for them. Should they be fired? Probably. But, the President is afraid to do this because he has nowhere else to turn.
If these Woodward disclosures, fully available to the President before publication, don't make you lose sleep, nothing ever will.

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