Bob Woodward's latest expose of a dysfunctional White House staff will prove as embarrassing to the Obama administration as his previous volumes were to previous administrations. Based only on this morning's accounts from the Washington Post and New York Times, Obama's Wars' greatest victim will not be a few bickering staffers but rather President Obama himself. According to Woodward and the newspaper accounts of his book, it was Obama who dictated the detailed specifications of America's military strategy in Afghanistan. These specifications arrived in the form of a six-page single-spaced "terms sheet," seemingtly drawn up to resemble a legal contract between Obama and his generals. But Obama's "terms sheet" is apparently a stew of bureaucratic and political compromises among interest groups, not a coherent strategy. Having personally written it, Obama will not be able to blame its inevitable failure on misguided staffers.
According to Woodward, Obama was frustrated with the military options presented to him in 2009, all of which called for escalation, nation-building, and a large open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan. Obama wanted none of these and growled at his military advisers for the messages they delivered. Obama seems to have had great trouble getting his staff to function properly. The problem is not the snide bickering, which is inevitable. The grave flaw appears to be the tight filters placed on the alternatives presented to Obama. "Personnel is policy." If all of Obama's military advice came from advisers who favor large-scale population-centric counterinsurgency, Obama should not be surprised when all of the options presented to him called for at least 30,000 more soldiers, nation-building, and an open-ended commitment. If this is in fact what happened during the 2009 deliberations, the blame for a poor staff process belongs to James Jones, Robert Gates, Admiral Mullen, and Obama himself.
As is already well-known, Obama has approved a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy but refused to fund it with the time necessary for success. Woodward also makes it clear that Obama proceeded with escalation even after acknowledging that the U.S. can't succeed while the Taliban's sanctuaries in Pakistan remain -- a problem that remains without a solution. What was newly revealed this morning is Obama's discomfort with his own strategy, his disdain for his military advisers, and his urgency to wind down America's military effort. As a result, Hamid Karzai will redouble his efforts to cut his own deals with Pakistan, the ISI, and the Taliban. And from that follows a higher risk of an Afghan civil war as its ethnic groups prepare to defend themselves.
Obama seems determined to resist any modification of his "terms sheet." But he and the military are not the only parties to the deal; the Taliban and reality are partners, too. Not long ago, Obama expressed pride at tripling the U.S. headcount in Afghanistan from the level left to him by the Bush administration. Escalation means greater risk and failure will mean three times the pain.