In Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward's new book chronicling the Obama administration's decision-making process on Afghanistan, CIA Director Leon Panetta sums up the book's theme (p. 247):
"No Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it ... So just do it. Do what they say."
And so it came to pass. Obama's Wars describes how the Afghan Surge Faction -- Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, and General David Petraeus -- insist on a military strategy that was at odds with the end-state, budget, and timeline President Obama had requested. Realizing that he did not possess the stature to either stand up to or to replace the members of the surge faction, Obama acceded to their demand.
The point is not whether the surge faction's advice for Afghanistan is wise or foolish. The larger point is whether a president's staff and decision-making process are responsive to his conception of strategy and if not, what options a president has to fix his staff and process when he finds them unresponsive. As Woodward makes clear in Obama's Wars, Obama's response to his recalcitrant advisers is setting up an unfortunate civil-military collision. Obama, informed by his legal background, granted the surge faction its strategy but also obliged them to take responsibility for their advice in writing, in the form of a "terms sheet" which Obama personally composed. Should, as Obama very likely suspects, the surge fail to produce the results the surge faction agreed to (in writing!), Obama believes he will then have the standing to be merciless with their heads.
Obama's problem with stubborn and uncooperative military advisers is not unique. In 2006, President George W. Bush did not get advice from the Pentagon he sought regarding the collapsing situation in Iraq. His solution was to go outside the government, using retired generals and think-tanks to formulate his strategy. According to Steve Coll in Ghost Wars, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Hugh Shelton resisted President Clinton's request to develop a ground force option to raid al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan (Clinton ended up following Panetta's advice). And in 1990, during the early days of Operation Desert Shield, Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell resisted President George H.W. Bush's request to develop an offensive option to eject the Iraq army from Kuwait. Schwarzkopf delivered a briefing that showed he would need twice as many troops and support to do the job. He and Powell believed that such a seemingly outrageous request for forces would cause the politicians to blanch and thus put an end to the idea of an offensive. Bush the Elder called their bluff and ordered the immense 7th Corps from Germany to Saudi Arabia, doing so while the Red Army was still camped in East Germany.
What will President Obama and future presidents learn from Obama's Wars, and from the other recent cases of staff intransigence? The first lesson will be to establish an independent council for military advice, a "shadow" Joint Chiefs of Staff, to provide a check on the advice coming from the Pentagon. Second, a president would be well advised to have worthy replacements, already vetted, available on call should he need to fire any of his principal advisers. Finally, a president will be wary about letting any of his subordinates achieve the status of "irreplaceable." As Obama has discovered, once that happens, they and not the president will be making policy.
With each new book he delivers, Woodward comes in for criticism. Critics accuse him of focusing too narrowly on the inside Washington game, or of providing scant context or analysis. Others take issue with his alleged "Prisoner's Dilemma" method of extracting interviews or find his sourcing and exposition suspect.
These critics misunderstand the niche Woodward's books occupy. His books, especially those this decade covering the wars, are an extension of newspaper reporting, a near-contemporaneous draft of history. Future historians will no doubt produce widely differing accounts of the Bush and Obama administrations. But Woodward allows us a remarkably early glimpse of history, early enough for both policymakers and the electorate to make necessary adjustments. That is likely more useful than the polished histories that will arrive decades from now.