Deep Moat

Julian Borger of the Guardian says that after reading Bob Woodward's book about President Obama's  disputes with his generals over Afghan policy he wondered why anyone was allowed to speak to the journalist in the first place.  The results were not very flattering for the President. "On the basis of these early reports, the book looks so damaging it seems incredible the Obama White House agreed to cooperate in the first place."

Mike Allen and John Harris of Politico wrote that even if it was a mis-step "the Obama team would not be the first administration to calculate that Woodward is better managed by inviting him inside than by trying to shut him out." At the heart of the problem is a painful dilemma. Washington is driven by the desire for publicity but is also obsessed with the need to control the message. They are afraid to speak but terrified of not being heard. On the one hand officials, especially minor officials, feel a compulsion to insinuate themselves into what they imagine will be the pages of history while dreading the possibility that they may be one of those reported in unflattering terms by the Ace Reporter and forever being associated with some piece of policy folly. According to Politico, Woodward plays on this fear to get his sources to rat on each other pre-emptively.

Another administration official explained: “He sequences his interviews in a way that he can impress the higher-ups with what he knows already. Then it’s harder not to talk. … Instead of thinking, “I’m talking to Bob Woodward; I’d better be careful,” sources tend to think, “I’m talking to Bob Woodward; I’d better tell him something good.”

Or rather tell him something bad. People who are convinced they've been set up to take the fall by people Woodward has already interviewed are often eager to put in the knife themselves. Anything but let Woodward take loyal silence as a confession of guilt for accusations you know have already been made.  This makes Woodward less of a journalistic knight in shining armor than a latter day cynic who benefits from recording the usual suspects knifing each other. However that may be, Borger asks his readers to step outside the inbred media world to consider the biggest damage inflicted by Woodward's book: telling the Taliban in print just how anxious the President was to the cut and run. He writes:

The current strategy in Afghanistan is to turn up the pressure on the Taliban through the surge, while exploring the possibility of a settlement with the insurgents, shorn of their al-Qaida affiliates.

This strategy was sold to Obama, and he sold it in turn to his supporters, on the grounds that the surge would shorten the war. The strategy falls down if the Taliban leadership in the Quetta Shura - and its Afghan and Pakistani allies - become convinced that the presidential resolve is hollow and that they do not have long to wait before the foreigners leave.

One official involved in tentative contacts with the insurgents told me today: "They will say: If the Americans are that anxious to leave, why should we talk?"

But did the Taliban really need Woodward's book to tell them that? It had been obvious for a long time that sections of the President's Party wanted an "exit strategy" from both Iraq and Afghanistan. ABC News wrote: "Nearly half the Democrats in the House of Representatives -- 102 members -- opposed a war-funding bill last June." So it may come as no surprise for them to read:

In "Obama's Wars," Woodward writes that in 2009, the president was intent on pursuing a way out of the war in Afghanistan. Obama is said to have pushed doggedly for an exit plan from his military advisers, only to be confounded when they offered plans that called for an increase in troops.

What may have pushed the President to agree to more troops was the need to withdraw while avoiding the appearance of being in retreat. It was an attempt to square the political circle and resulted in an internal negotiated bureaucratic agreement. The BBC says:

the policy picture that emerges [is] of a president actively seeking an exit strategy from Afghanistan. "I'm not doing 10 years," President Obama is quoted as saying ... I'm not doing long-term nation building. I am not spending a trillion dollars. This needs to be a plan about how we're going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan."

By Mr Woodward's account the Pentagon and senior civilian officials resisted this line. ... General David Petraeus, at the time head of US Central Command, is portrayed as favouring a long-term counter-insurgency effort, modelled on previous success in Iraq.

He is quoted as saying: "This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives." Mr Woodward implies that Vice-President Joe Biden's much-publicised opposition to counter-insurgency was a tactic, played out at Mr Obama's request, to encourage the Pentagon to compromise.

To resolve the internal differences, President Obama is said to have drawn up a six-page "terms agreement," committing all parties into his chosen path of 30,000 additional troops and the beginnings of a draw-down in July 2011.

The Obama in Woodward's book, at least from the snippets,  appears to be someone convinced that America can 'afford' a retreat.  It recalls Burke's advice to the British government in the matter of the colonies. "The superior power may offer peace with honor and with safety. Such an offer from such a power will be attributed to magnanimity. But the concessions of the weak are the concessions of fear. When such a one is disarmed, he is wholly at the mercy of his superior; and he loses forever that time and those chances."  Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner quotes another snippet from Woodward's book.

Many conservatives are reacting pretty strongly to Barack Obama’s line to Bob Woodward that “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever … we absorbed it and we are stronger.” ... I don’t see Obama as “complacent,” but rather, realistic. ... What does that mean? It resembles the talk, post 9/11, of Islamic terrorism as posing an “existential threat” to the U.S. Does anyone really think the terrorists could possibly eliminate us from this Earth. ...

We often make cost-benefit analyses that weigh potential deaths against other factors, like freedom, convenience, and cost. It sounds awful, but it’s real. Sure, the President shouldn’t have said this to a reporter, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.

The need to say, but not say. The impulse to confess and then to deny. It's all on display. Bob Woodward has made a handsome living out of exhibiting the freak show that plays nonstop inside the Beltway. He is able to use the basest instincts of bureaucrats,  obsessed with self-preservation, to make them turn on each other. But by far the most astounding thing about his portrayals is the belief among his interviewees that their Byzantine maneuverings are themselves the secrets; that the Taliban cannot guess that the Peace Party is virtually stumbling over itself to find an exit; that the public cannot sense that factions in Washington are at daggers drawn; that the world can't see that principal officers of the Republic regard each other as charlatans and knaves, without having to read it first in a Woodward book.

The peculiar characteristic of certain kinds of life is that they can only be led artificially. Events themselves are less to be preferred than their portrayal. The most lasting legacy of Watergate may the ambition it has inspired in generations of bureaucrats the compulsion to star in their own poorly produced, tragi-comedic dramas. Bob Woodward's books may be like a horrible kind of reality TV, at once contrived, true-to-life, fascinating and degrading, but hey, they are the stage on which everyone wants to play. Jason Robards, portraying Ben Bradlee said on All the President's Men, said: "you know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit." That is the greatest fear in certain circles. Not that you might do something wrong, but that you might do something forgettable.


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