Woodward: Military Thwarted Obama

Bob Woodward reports that President Obama was looking for options other than staying the course in Afghanistan. The military didn't provide any.

WaPo continues to give Bob Woodward free advertising for his latest tome, Obama’s Generals, and he’s obliging with some juicy bits.

President Obama was on edge.

For two exhausting months, he had been asking military advisers to give him a range of options for the war in Afghanistan. Instead, he felt that they were steering him toward one outcome and thwarting his search for an exit plan. He would later tell his White House aides that military leaders were “really cooking this thing in the direction they wanted.”

He was looking for choices that would limit U.S. involvement and provide a way out. His top three military advisers were unrelenting advocates for 40,000 more troops and an expanded mission that seemed to have no clear end. When his national security team gathered in the White House Situation Room on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2009, for its eighth strategy review session, the president erupted.

“So what’s my option? You have given me one option,” Obama said, directly challenging the military leadership at the table, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command.

“We were going to meet here today to talk about three options,” Obama said sternly. “You agreed to go back and work those up.”

Mullen protested. “I think what we’ve tried to do here is present a range of options.”

Obama begged to differ. Two weren’t even close to feasible, they all had acknowledged; the other two were variations on the 40,000.

Silence descended on the room. Finally, Mullen said, “Well, yes, sir.”

Mullen later explained, “I didn’t see any other path.”

This adds a bit more confirmation to what I’ve long suspected was the case:  Obama was desperately looking for a way out from under the Afghanistan rock.  Despite having campaigned chastising his predecessor for putting that “necessary war” on the back burner to pour resources into the “unnecessary war” in Iraq, he’d come to think there was no path to success.  And the military —  including his own appointees — were doing their level best to force his hand to stay the course if not double down.

But, while some of the public statements and leaks by Stanley McChrystal in particular concern me, this part of it strikes me as legitimate.   The assembled military leadership simply saw no honorable choice in the matter. The options, as they saw it, were to continue to slog on or to withdraw with our tail between our legs. And this:

The only distinctly new alternative offered to Obama came from outside the military hierarchy. Vice President Biden had long and loudly argued against the military’s 40,000-troop request. He worked with Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to develop a “hybrid option” – combining elements of other plans – that called for only 20,000 additional troops. It would have a more limited mission of hunting down the Taliban insurgents and training the Afghan police and army to take over.

When Mullen learned of the hybrid option, he didn’t want to take it to Obama. “We’re not providing that,” he told Cartwright, a Marine known around the White House as Obama’s favorite general.

Some variation of the Biden plan actually struck me as the best path by that point. By I can understand why the Pentagon’s seniors weren’t enamored of it.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Very interesting since it presents the first evidence I’ve seen that the President might have preferred another alternative to the “doubling down” tactic he adopted.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I’ve always wondered whether the President requested a military plan based on Biden’s arguments. The notion that there were two plans, McChrystal’s and Biden’s, was silly. Biden didn’t have a military plan he had a different set of strategic goals.

    I wonder if part of the problem here is that the President didn’t shift strategic goals, but kept asking for the same goals with fewer troops.

  3. AllenS says:

    Obama is the Commander in Chief. He needs to lead. He needs to have a plan. If he doesn’t like what the military that works for him has to say, then he needs to plot a course. Unfortunately, like everything else, he wants others to do the work, which eventually will lead to him putting the blame on that person if things don’t work out well. This is what happens when he isn’t able to vote “present” anymore.

  4. reid says:

    AllenS: So he needs to be a bold, courageous leader like Bush and just do whatever he wants, advice be damned? Quite the anti-Obama spin there.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Dave S: What stands out here is what I think we already assumed, that Obama recoiled at the price tag. The question is did he keep asking for a Cadillac product and demand a different price tag or financing arrangement? Or did he ask the military to price out a Chevy?

  6. ponce says:

    “Obama is the Commander in Chief. He needs to lead. He needs to have a plan.”

    I disagree.

    There’s nothing to lead in Afghanistan. Our culture prevents us from engaging in the kind of scorched earth campaign that could earn us a “win” there.

    We’re now engaged in the nihilistic process of killing enough American soldiers and spending enough taxpayer money to earn the right to withdraw from Afghanistan…which by definition requires a total absence of civilian and military leadership.

  7. Robert Bell says:

    “This adds a bit more confirmation to what I’ve long suspected was the case: Obama was desperately looking for a way out from under the Afghanistan rock. ”

    Another less loaded interpretation is simply that of a standard management technique of changing a yes/no question into a scenario driven exercise of generating different options and then picking from them.

  8. AllenS says:

    “AllenS: So he needs to be a bold, courageous leader like Bush and just do whatever he wants, advice be damned?”

    Bush isn’t president any more. Obama has to make the decisions. If he doesn’t like what his military commanders are recommending, then he needs to make a decision on what he want s to accomplish. Obama isn’t doing that. Obama is giving every indication that he doesn’t like what his military commanders are recommending. Tell me, who should be making the decisions then, if not Obama?

    “There’s nothing to lead in Afghanistan. ”

    Fine, then it’s time for Obama to take a leadership role and get us out of there. Make sure you understand where I’m coming from, Sh*t or get off the pot.

  9. reid says:

    AllenS: I understand that Bush isn’t president anymore. You seemed to be suggesting that if the president isn’t hearing what he wants from his military advisers, he should “be a leader” and go with his gut anyway. Well, we have a lousy precedent for that.

    Your posts reek of anti-Obama spin…. “Obama can’t vote present.” “Obama has to make the decisions.” No kidding, who do you think IS making the decisions? He’s getting advice and information from the military and making tough choices; choices he probably wished he didn’t have to make given the situation there. I fail to see the controversy. As Robert Bell said, he’s been working with his top advisers to come up with scenarios and picking the best plan; using this as an opportunity to spread a “weak, passive leader” meme is sad partisan hackery.

  10. Brett says:

    I read the article, and none of the participants comes across as looking good. Obama looks like he’s in denial, and constantly searching for someone – Cartwright, Biden – who would tell him what he wanted to hear in terms of avoiding escalation in Afghanistan (“more than one option”). That’s very Lyndon B. Johnson-esque, and I don’t like it.

    On the other hand, Petraeus and Mullen may or may not have been right on escalation, but they were also clearly trying to outflank Obama and pull him into adopting the strategy they wanted by going public. Not exactly a recipe for civil-military trust.

  11. reid says:

    I’ll also say that I haven’t read this book or heard much of the details in it. Just going by James’s post and comments here, I don’t see much controversy or “juicy bits”. I can’t fault Obama for wanting “more than one option”, or at the least, being given information about costs/benefits of proceeding down different paths. Yes, I should probably go read the referenced article already….

  12. Tano says:

    “Despite having campaigned chastising his predecessor for putting that “necessary war” on the back burner to pour resources into the “unnecessary war” in Iraq, he’d come to think there was no path to success”

    I don’t see that at all. Obama always campaigned on bringing a renewed focus on Afghanistan. But he never argued for a massive open-ended commitment.

    Back in the nineties, everyone was loudly arguing that one needed to have an exit plan BEFORE engaging in any war. Thats what seems to be going on here. Having an exit plan is not, as you seem to imply, an admission that there is no path to success. It is, rather, a way to clearly define the mission, and how and when it should end.

    All I see here is the president demanding a coherent plan to achieve the goals and to then get out. And his military was focusing on the former and not the latter.

  13. AllenS says:

    “All I see here is the president demanding a coherent plan to achieve the goals and to then get out.”

    What are the goals? Has Obama proposed a goal to be met? What is it?

    “And his military was focusing on the former and not the latter.”

    What would you suggest, the latter before the former? Are you suggesting that we get out before we achieve the goals?

  14. PD Shaw says:

    One of Obama’s first steps in office was to convene a policy review on Afghanistan; the results were presented in March of 2009:

    “we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future…To achieve our goals, we need a stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy.”

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Whats-New-in-the-Strategy-for-Afghanistan-and-Pakistan/

    My read on the WaPo piece is that Obama didn’t change the goals, he just didn’t like the price discovery.

  15. AllenS says:

    Bingo!

  16. AllenS says:

    Let’s get something straight about Obama and Afghanistan. When we was running for POTUS, he was strutting around like he had the big nut sack concerning the two wars. He was going to leave the Iraq war, and he promoted the prosecution of the right war, as he stated, in Afghanistan. After listening to this report, Obama has an inch of dick, and a two pea nut sack. A boy, a boy trying to do a man’s job. He ain’t cutting it.

  17. AllenS says:

    we = he, sorry.