Curioser and curioser.  The process of military strategy-making in the Obama Administration has been public and painful, but Bob Woodward’s narrative, as told in last week’s preview and today’s first-of-three excerpts of Obama’s War in the Washington Post, takes us through an increasingly opaque looking glass.

Woodward’s take is that the president’s military advisers “thwarted” his desire for “a range of options for the war in Afghanistan.”  The White House take is that the president was master of the situation, and indeed by Woodward’s account, it’s clear that the final decisions were Obama’s.  Both cannot be simultaneously true.

To be sure, the agonizing, almost-six-month process of the 2009 Afghanistan strategy review—meaning the one that began with the selection of Gen. Stanley McChrystal to run the war, not the earlier, spring strategy review—lurched from one extreme to another.  But for those who followed the tick-tock two facts seem indisputable.  One, the process generated lots of options, ranging from the minimalist “counterterrorism” approach favored by Vice President Joseph Biden to various versions of the counterinsurgency campaign devised by McChrystal.  With high-ranking officers and civilians on both sides of the divide (Woodward makes plain how Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright worked with Biden and members of the National Security Council staff; Defense Secretary Robert Gates was the real ringleader of the COINdinistas), there was an immense amount of bureaucratic knife-fighting, but, if anything, it was a process marred by too many rather than not enough “options.”

And Woodward is undisputably right: the final decision was the president’s, with a six-page, contract-like “terms sheet.”  Woodward quotes the president as saying “I want everybody to sign on to this – McChrystal, Petraeus, Gates, Mullen, [U.S. Ambassador Karl W.] Eikenberry and [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton. We should get this on paper and on the record….We’re not going to do this unless everybody literally signs on to this and looks me in the eye and tells me that they’re for it.  I don’t want to have anybody going out the day after [the speech announcing the decision] and saying that they don’t agree with this.”

But if this is mastery, it’s of the if-you-don’t-behave-I’m-going-to-shoot-myself variety.  In Woodward’s account of a final discussion between Obama and Gates, the president threatens that if the Pentagon’s deployments aren’t firmly held at 30,000—with no funny math for “enablers”—the president will hold the total down to 10,000 “and we can continue to go as we are”—that is, on a path toward defeat—“and just hope for the best.”

The president’s other big threat when it comes to family feuding is to unchain Rahm Emanuel.  One of the most poignant passages in today’s installment, JCS Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen steps out of a White House Situation Room meeting in order to protect Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, who is enduring a “rant filled with expletives” from Emanuel, about Mullen’s testimony—previously approved by the White House and in fulfillment of Mullen’s Constitutional duties to render best military advice to the Congress—on Afghanistan troop needs.  Mullen “let them seethe. ‘I just took it.’”

Although Woodward forever strives to retain his stance as a just-the-facts reporter, his books on Washington at war have been a chronicle of decaying American civil-military relations.  I would argue that this epic also includes The Commanders, the story of the Bush I team in Panama and Desert Storm.  The particulars have been unique in each case, from the gays-in-the-military or Black-Hawk-Down fumbles of the Clinton years, or the Rumsfeld “Revolt of the Generals” and the many disconnects of the Bush era, to the “Team of Rivals” troubles of the Obama White House.  But taken as a whole, the consistent factor is the inability of these commanders-in-chief to communicate clearly and openly.  To be sure, it has been a time of wild swings in U.S. policy—to use force as a tool of statecraft or as a last resort, to nation-build or not to nation-build, to win the wars we’re in or prepare for a longer-term future—but it has also been a time when soldiers and statesmen have drifted farther and farther apart, until, in this latest Woodward snapshot, they seem almost from different planets.

This cannot be good.

(Flickr/Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
AEI