Small Wars Journal

Book review: Obama's Wars

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.


<i>Winning is indeed about achieving political objectives. But when achieving those objectives is hard and frustrating you have to have the heart to see it through</i>

Sometimes the heart to see it through is less important than the wit and the honesty to see that the course you're on is leading nowhere you want to go, and the will to make necessary adjustments. I think there's a clear disparity between means and goals in this case, and that the goals selected were simply not realistically evaluated. At a certain point you stop banging your head against the wall and adjust the goals.

carl (not verified)

Wed, 10/13/2010 - 11:26am


Listen to the comment. I interpreted Mr. Woodward's words, manner and tone to suggest that Mr. Obama doesn't have what it takes to prevail when difficulties arise. He just ain't got the heart.

Winning is indeed about achieving political objectives. But when achieving those objectives is hard and frustrating you have to have the heart to see it through; not just the cleverness to rationalize not making the effort. That is what I believe Mr. Woodward means.

But you should listen to it and decide for yourself. It sort of scared me.

<i>Mr. Woodward set up that comment by saying that in any contest between people, you've got to want to win, just like the coaches on the sidelines say.</i>

This isn't a football game. "Winning" isn't beating the other guy, winning is achieving your objectives. We stepped on our equipment when we established the objective of installing a centralized western-style government in an environment clearly unsuited to it, and by pursuing that objective with tools not suited to its accomplishment.

Winning is about achieving political objectives. This isn't about a lack of will to win, its about keeping objectives in scale with our capacities and the resources we're willing to apply. If we can't achieve the objectives, that doesn't necessarily mean we need more will. We may just need a more realistic set of objectives.

bemused (not verified)

Tue, 10/12/2010 - 7:33pm

I don't understand the point of view that suggests only military considerations matter in the pursuit of state objectives that require using the military tool. Obama was a young man when he came into office, willing, it seems from Woodward's book, to give every consideration to the senior military men advising him. He outlined his strategy and the military, Gates, Petraeus and McChrystal fought him every step of the way to the point that he had to take the unprecedented step (according to Petraeus) of issuing a six page, single-spaced directive summarizing his directives and then insisting upon his military advisor's publically declaring their willingness to support him or to say otherwise. The man has other battles going on simultaneously with the economy, the loss of millions of jobs, etc., etc., and his military team is, like a bunch of spoiled little girls, demanding that he do everything their way or they won't play. And people don't like comparisons with Vietnam? I wish some of these whining "patriots" tried to think just a little of what else is going on in this world.

Bob's World

Tue, 10/12/2010 - 10:02am

In the course of a few months General Bradley fired well over a dozen Division and Corps commanders simply because they were not keeping up with the timetable for his massive frontal assuault across France.

I agree that such approaches are "bad leadership," but there is a strong precedence for such. Lincoln changed out a few generals as well as I recall; many look his moral courage to do so as strong leadership. It's a grey area.

TJM (not verified)

Tue, 10/12/2010 - 7:56am

<em>"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."</em>

I hope that is not accurate. It would be irresponsible to willingly acquiesce to a plan formulated by one's subordinates, that one has little to no faith in, with the only recourse to problems stemming from that plan being to point at your subordinates and declare, "your plan failed." That would be worse than bad leadership - it would not even qualify as leadership.

Bob's World

Tue, 10/12/2010 - 7:41am


OK, you're right, we see this diffently. As to sanctuary for insurgency or for a non-state UW actor like AQ I believe a practical definition is:

"Insurgencies take sanctuary in some combination of legal status, the support of a poorly governed populace, and some favorable combination of terrain and vegetation. Functional sanctuary associated with such status or support is more powerful than physical sanctuary provided by a particular place."

Yes the tribal area of Pakistan is currently very "convenient" for AQ; I would argue that we do a better job of making it inconvenient by working with the Pashtuns to reconcile their concerns with GIROA on one hand, and by allowing the Gov't of Pakistan to return to allowing them to be largely self-governing and pulling their security forces back down into the Indus as they were prior to our manipulations.

The more we over-engage, the more we conflate nationalist insurgent movements across Islam with AQ the more sanctuary we create for AQ to use. In that regard, AQ has a lot more options for sanctuary today than they did 9 years ago. This is a critical point that comes with understanding that "space" is the smallest component of Sanctuary. Our efforts that overly focus on denying a certain space enhance the other components of sanctuary in that very space and elsewhere.

As to seeing the PAK-India conflict as all being the product of the PAK military/ISI really don't know how one would draw such a conclusion, so I have no comment other than that I find that to be HIGHLY unlikely.

carl (not verified)

Tue, 10/12/2010 - 2:07am


I understand the points you are making but I don't accept the premises which underlie them.

As I understand it one of your premises is that one place is as good as another when it comes AQ hidey holes. I do not think this is so. I believe that the frontier areas of Pakistan provide advantages that are unique in the world. It is far away from the sea. That makes it harder or impossible for a naval power to get at them easily. It is quite mountainous with a not well developed road network. The mountains are high. Those two things make it hard to drive around and fly around. And oddly enough, there are good airports fairly close that provide easy contact with the rest of the world. Most importantly, there is a government and a reasonably powerful guerrilla organization to provide cover, succor and sanctuary for AQ. There isn't anyplace else in the world that I can think of where these advantages combine as they do in the frontier areas of Pakistan. If the Taliban were to retake Afghanistan there would be even more advantages because there would be two governments covering AQ and they would have that much more land area and that many more mountain ranges to hide in.

I know the counterargument to that is in the age of the internet, they can plot from anywhere. But that hasn't been the case in practice. Every international terrorist organization that I can think of has had a sanctuary of some kind, someplace where they don't have to worry about the local cops getting energetic. AQ has been the same. They have used the Afghan and Pakistan sanctuaries and still do. Most of the plots and actions seem to lead back to Pakistan someway somehow. I believe that is because of that unique combination of conditions I listed above.

If that is the case (I don't figure you will agree) it is very much in our national interest to deprive them of those sanctuaries because they will have no where else to go.

I understand your second premise to be that the hostility shown by Pakistan toward India is something that cannot be changed. It is immutable. Again, I do not think this is so. I think that tension and hostility is mostly one sided and is mostly the result (you can guess what's next) of the almost irrational dreams the Pak Army/ISI have of "getting" the Indians. Those mad dreams lead to things like Mumbai, Kargil and Afghan training camps for pawns to be dispatched to Kashmir. Those dreams lead to the desire to use Afghanistan to establish "strategic depth", an idea that for the life of me I can't figure out, since if they had to retreat that far the nukes would have already flown.

If the Pak Army/ISI came to their senses and realized that they are not going to beat India, they are not going to make them cry uncle and they are never going to be able force them to the negotiating table from a position of strength, everything would change. There would be no need for the constant poking of the Indian giant and therefore no need to sponsor all the varieties of killers they sponsor and often lose control of; no need either for strategic depth and therefor no real need to control who governs Afghanistan. They could keep their nukes and nobody would much care because they would have demonstrated some wisdom and maturity.

The key to this whole thing is the upper echelons of the Pak Army/ISI. Their minds must change or be changed.

Bob's World

Mon, 10/11/2010 - 4:29pm


I think you miss my point. As you know, people are dying in Afghanistan as we type these exchanges, many of those people are Western soldiers. I'm talking about the here and now, and here and now we have no vital interests at risk in Afghanistan; at least not that can be served by our current program of engagement.

One vital interest is the possiblity of our actions disrupting the delicate deterrence between India and Pakistan. Is our shaping who governs Afghanistan worth the risk of provoking a nuclear exchange?? We make this all about us and we overlook how critical instability in Afghanistan is to Pakistan in their Cold War with India. We worry about "loose Nukes" if we don't engage, right? I worry about what happens with the nukes under full state control if we DO engage...

We don't understand the nuances of this region, we don't appreciate the higher order effects. We work mightily to prevent a small problem in a manner that may well provoke a large problem. We don't want to overplay this one.

Besides, its better that AQ stays in Pakistan. At least then we know where they are. If we deny this sanctuary location, they will simply execute their sanctuary elsewhere, and of all the places for it to be, this is probably the best one for us. Why screw up a good thing? We can keep the heat on them low key to distupt their operations without all the fuss and risk we're causing currently.

carl (not verified)

Mon, 10/11/2010 - 2:04pm

Dayuhan: You don't have to listen to the whole thing, just the first 10 minutes or so, at least as far as the comment in question goes. Mr. Woodward set up that comment by saying that in any contest between people, you've got to want to win, just like the coaches on the sidelines say. Then came the comment in which Mr. Woodward questioned Mr. Obama's will to win. You should listen to it and decide if my paraphrasing is correct. I was very disturbed by the comment because it speaks to the character of the man and how that character might or might not serve us in times of crisis.

Robert C. Jones: I am always bothered by comments to the effect that what happens now doesn't matter much because we will look beyond the immediate to the great beyond. Our interests may indeed lay with Afghan people but those interests will be served, or how we will help the Afghan people, very much depend on the government that controls the place. Things eventually may be hunky-dory between us and all things Afghan even if the Taliban takes the place over but in the mean time a lot of people will suffer and die who otherwise wouldn't.

Bob's World

Mon, 10/11/2010 - 1:12pm


My point being simply that in the big scheme of things, our operations in Afghanistan are far more of the "urgent" nature than "Important." You forgive the guys on the ground drawing helmet fire for not making that observation, but you can hardly forgive those sitting back in DC wringing their hands (on both sides of the aisle) over the matter.

Some questionable positions as to what exactly makes up "sanctuary" for an organization such as AQ and also the role of ideology in such organizations also serves to cloud good judgment.

Then there is personal and national ego. We feel we must "win" because we do not want to be perceived as having "lost." The fact that there is little to be truly won or lost is what actually seems to be lost.

Then there is the president and his advisors, painting themselves into a corner of Iraq being the "bad war", but not wanting to appear soft on terrorists, deciding then that Afghanistan must be the "good war." Better to realize that neither are wars at all, accept that we cannot "win" in the classic sense through military action, and place both in a more appropriate perspective in regards to everything else we have going on at home and abroad.

The chess board reference was only to highlight the relative importance of the play of a single pawn, not to infer that it is a two dimensional world with the US at one end of the table and everyone else at the other.

Bill C. (not verified)

Mon, 10/11/2010 - 12:39pm

Should we consider that the today there may be no such thing as a "US global chessboard" but, instead, simply a "global chessboard;" one on which -- not just the United States -- but other influencial players (ex: China) play.

If this is correct, then could we say -- not just in Afghanistan but also in other areas of the world wherein our interests lie -- that, should we "miss the bus," there may be no future bus on which we (the United States) might be able to secure a ride?

(Other player[s] having used this opportunity to secure this/these bus lines and routes for their own purposes.)

Or is this what America's military power in the 21st Century is designed to prevent/preclude?

Bob's World

Mon, 10/11/2010 - 11:51am

We must never forget that Afghanistan for all of the focus and energy put against it, is still just a single pawn on the US global chessboard.

Just because the pawn is the current piece in play and drawing all the attention does not elevate to being more than just a pawn. I would challenge Mr. Woodward on this point. Just what is he willing to risk to "win" the pawn? Another pawn? A Knight? His Queen? We need to be careful not to confuse urgency as importance, nor someone elses war as our own.

If the Karzai government falls Afghanistan will remain, as will the Afghan people. Our interests lie these, not any particular government. Like buses, if we miss this one, we can always catch the next.

Is there a transcript of the interview about? I dislike listening to such discussions, and watching is worse, but I'd be curious to read an explanation of how exactly "will to win" is the issue. I'd have said the problem traces back to the selection of an unachievable objective (stable, self-sustaining centralized government in Afghanistan) and the decision to pursue that objective with means not suited to it (military force can accomplish many things, but it can't conjure up a functioning government).

JMA (not verified)

Sun, 10/10/2010 - 9:05am

Yes carl, it is an absolute must listen to interview. If there was ever any doubt as to why the Afghan effort is adrift in high seas this interview clears that up.

carl (not verified)

Sat, 10/09/2010 - 6:41pm

I could not get my machine to play more than 22 minutes of the interview recommended by JMA. But at about the 7 minute mark Mr. Woodward says of Mr. Obama in ref to Afghanistan "...and it's just not clear that he has this will to win."

JMA: After I heard that I thought sobering is an understatement.