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Obama's Afghanistan Decision and the Art of the Tick-Tock

5 years ago
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No group can possibly be as smug as presidential advisers after a major national security decision has been announced.

Anyone who was ever allowed into the inner sanctum of the White House Situation Room, even if only to attend a deputies meeting, can bask in collective pride over the president's handiwork. At moments like this, it is easy for these insiders to believe that every option was parsed, that every grumpy dissent was respectfully heard and that not since the launch of the Marshall Plan has there been a more inspired team of American wise men and women.

This delicious self-congratulatory phase – after a decision but before its pitfalls become obvious – invariably prompts one of the most insidious forms of insider journalism, the White House tick-tock. So over the weekend, the New York Times and the Washington Post provided lengthy fly-on-the-wall dramatic renderings of Barack Obama's bold Afghan decision to . . . well . . . surge and then not surge. The Los Angeles Times offered an earlier and less melodramatic recreation of Obama's expansion of the Eight Years War in Afghanistan. (Speaking of earlier, the Politico ran a prior analysis of these tick-tock narratives)

All these stories were partly choreographed by the White House. It was not accidental that the Times suddenly was granted "dozens of interviews with participants as well as a review of notes some of them took during Mr. Obama's 10 meetings with his national security team." The Post had to make due with interviews with "more than dozen senior administration and military officials who took part in the strategy review." Presumably, Times and Post reporters simultaneously were darting in and out of offices along the corridors of power with the frantic energy of a French bedroom farce.

So what was the Obama administration peddling? A major motif, particularly in the Times, is that Afghanistan is not Vietnam and Obama is not about to lose his presidency over an unwinnable war that he inherited. It was telling that both the Times and the Post included identical quotes from Obama who told aides after a visit to wounded soldiers, "I don't want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years." Embedded in this oft-repeated remark is Obama's self-confident belief that he will be president for nearly eight more years. But the intended message is that this is a president who is not cavalier about casualties.

Someday there undoubtedly will be a Republican president obsessed with avoiding George W. Bush's errors in Iraq. But for four decades, Democrats have been haunted by the death of Lyndon Johnson's liberal presidency in the jungles of Vietnam.

The Times story by Peter Baker stressed that Obama and his aides had all read "Lessons in Disaster" by Gordon Goldstein, the story of the misguided Vietnam judgments of 1960s national security adviser McGeorge Bundy. According to the Times, the lesson in disaster that the White House team drew from the book is that both John Kennedy and LBJ "failed to question the underlying assumption about monolithic Communism and the domino theory – clearly driving Obama advisers to rethink the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban."

The goal not to be trapped by the rigidities of unchallenged assumptions is laudable. But a close reading of all three newspaper articles suggests how conventional most of the debates in the White House Sit Room actually were. No one appears to have questioned whether it is necessary to fight al Qaeda around the globe in order to protect America against a major attack. Nor apparently was there a serious debate about abandoning Afghanistan to its fate. Early in the deliberations, according to the Times, Obama said flatly, "I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we're leaving Afghanistan."

Obama's Afghan decision may prove to be the best of the flawed options available. But it is hard to argue that there was anything inherently bold about Obama opting to rush 30,000 men and women to Afghanistan (plus NATO reinforcements) rather than the 40,000 troops originally requested by General Stanley McChrystal. Kennedy, Johnson and their best and brightest advisers routinely declared that leaving Vietnam was not an option. Obama did exactly the same thing with Afghanistan, but, of course, this president was profoundly influenced by the lasting lessons of Vietnam.

That may be why Obama's advisers have to stretch to portray the stuff of greatness in the president's Afghan decision-making. As the Los Angeles Times first reported and the New York Times honored as its lead anecdote, Obama's breakthrough moment came when he pointed to a chart outlining a gradual escalation of troop levels in Afghanistan and dramatically declared, "I want this pushed to the left." Even if you go with the LA Times version, "I want to move this to the left," the Obama line calling for faster deployment desperately needs a script doctor. Somehow "I want this pushed to the left" lacks the emotional grandeur of, say, "We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds. . . . We shall never surrender."

The recurring problem with high-stakes presidential decision-making is not that the White House discussions lack dissenters, but that the dissent becomes ritualized and marginalized. During the Vietnam War, George Ball, the undersecretary of State, played the predictable role of the in-house dove whose objections were regularly over-ruled. Secretary of State Colin Powell was always in the room ineffectually talking about diplomacy during the run-up to the Iraq War.

All this bring us to Obama's vice president and dissenter-in-chief Joe Biden. The portrayal of Biden in all these news stories is weird – he was simultaneously depicted as important and irrelevant. Describing Biden's obsession with nuclear-armed Pakistan where al Qaeda is based, the Times quoted an insider's comment about the vice president: "He was the bull in the china shop." That hackneyed phrase is almost always a put-down. But, according to the Times, those words were supposedly uttered by "one admiring administration official."

Huh? When do admirers call someone a "bull in the china shop"? That is akin to the newspaper writing, "As one official ready to propose Biden for a Nobel Prize put it, 'He drove us all up the wall because he wouldn't shut up.'" In all likelihood, the Times' odd use of the phrase "admiring official" was either an attempt not to antagonize Biden or else a bizarre way to shoehorn a negative blind quote into print.

In its article by Anne Kornblut, Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung, the Post also started to go after Biden and then abruptly (and perhaps prudently) reversed direction. The topic was, once again, Biden's emphasis on attacking al Qaeda strongholds along the lawless border regions of Pakistan. "Some thought his analysis reflected a misunderstanding of counterinsurgency and an overemphasis on bombs and missiles," the Post wrote, "but many, including Obama, found his sharp questioning invaluable."

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, gets glowing reviews in the Times for "asking hard questions about Afghan troop training, unafraid of wading into Pentagon territory." In one memorable scene, the secretary of state felt outgunned at a meeting by the Defense Department's color-coded maps of Afghanistan. In words that someday are apt to be carved in marble, Clinton declared on her return to the State Department, "We need maps."

That points up a recurring problem with these insider White House accounts (Bob Woodward please pick up the white courtesy phone) – most of the drama lies in reporters getting the quotes given to them by administration officials rather than what may have been actually said. In fact, the best line in any of these stories comes from the New York Times comic struggle to uphold traditional standards in a coarsened news environment. Describing an intemperate cable from Karl Eikenberry, the American ambassador in Kabul, the Times wrote, "The reaction at the Pentagon, said one official was 'Whisky Tango Foxtrot' – military slang for an expression of shock." Not exactly. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is merely the acronym "WTF," which, of course, stands for (the sensitive should avert their eyes) "What the F--k."

That is precisely the reaction that should be inspired by this entire "let's get in the room where it really happened" journalistic genre. For all the talk about journalism as the "first draft of history," stories like these are more apt to be the first draft of spin. There are so many ways that presidential images can be sugar-coated and top officials like Biden can get the shiv. Of course, we want to know what happened in the Oval Office and the White House Situation Room. But these semi-authorized instant histories provide the illusion of an insider account without anyone, including the president, being accountable.

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