In what has become a rite of passage of sorts for American commanders in chief, President Obama is now the subject of a Bob Woodward book. True to form for the veteran Washington Post reporter, Obama’s Wars dishes some headline-worthy scoops, and news organizations have dutifully spent Wednesday kicking around the details of presidential deliberations on whether and how to escalate the war in Afghanistan. When Bill Clinton read Woodward’s tome on his presidency, The Agenda, he “stewed for months about what he considered distortion by Woodward and betrayal by his top aides,” Politico notes. Will the new book, which seems sure to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, do damage to Obama and the flagging midterm campaigns of Democrats?
For now, the White House seems not to think so, describing Woodward’s portrait of Obama as “analytical, strategic, and decisive.” By Woodward’s and other accounts, the president studied the issue of Afghanistan so thoroughly that he surprised his military advisers, which could counter past claims of Obama’s inexperience. He stuck to his belief that the nation should not make an open-ended commitment to the war and overruled generals who wanted a longer timeline and more troops than the 30,000 Obama eventually added to the Afghan campaign. When the Pentagon asked for even more troops after the decision was made, Obama said, according to Woodward, “I’m done doing this!”
But Obama’s critics are likely to interpret Woodward’s account differently. When Obama’s Wars describes the infighting among the president’s team, voters who expected to see an untested president may now see a White House out of order, even if Obama did maintain control of the debate. (Some highlights from the coverage so far: National Security Adviser James L. Jones calling White House advisers “water bugs”; Vice President Joe Biden describing Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as "the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met”; Gen. David Petraeus labeling White House senior adviser David Axelrod as a “complete spin doctor.”)
Worse, Woodward writes that the popular Petraeus took Obama’s final decision about the strategy as a “personal repudiation,” according to The Washington Post. If so, that means the general, who took command of the Afghanistan campaign this summer, is presiding over a strategy he did not favor. If the buck did not already stop with Obama when it comes to success or failure in Afghanistan, it certainly does now.
Then again, we already knew it was Obama who made the final call. And while Woodward’s revelations—what we know of them so far—show that the divisions over Afghanistan strategy ran deep and were personal, we already knew that too, to some extent, thanks to much reporting on those tense months in the winter of 2009.
What we didn’t have, and what the early leaks of Woodward’s books have typically provided, is sound bites for the campaign trail. Woodward’s full narrative may well show Obama deliberating extensively on the merits of various Afghanistan plans, but will any of those scenes echo as loudly as what the president said to Sen. Lindsay Graham about the July 2011 troop withdrawal deadline? Obama said, according to Woodward, “I can’t lose the Democratic Party.” Just before saying that, the president also told Graham that he couldn’t let Afghanistan be “a war without end.” Yet it’s hard to imagine commentators mentioning that context as they criticize him for politicizing national security, or Republican candidates qualifying the quote as they attempt to link incumbent Democrats to the president. Will Obama’s Wars damage Democrats? Time will tell. But it certainly has given their opponents ammunition.