Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward is best known (alongside colleague Carl Bernstein) for reporting on the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s unceremonious downfall in 1974. In 1976, Robert Redford was even flatteringly cast to portray Woodward in the Academy Award-winning film All The President’s Men.
Such notoriety at the start of a career can be a blessing and a curse, yet Woodward has prevailed, continuing to gain access and information where others have failed. He’s a famously tough nut to crack in terms of revealing personal ideology; over 39 years with the Post, he’s tried to maintain an old-school reporter’s objectivity in a world now dominated by Bill O’Reillys and Keith Olbermanns.
He’s written definitive accounts of the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the latter spanning four separate books over Bush’s two terms. His extensive bibliography also includes an investigative look into the Central Intelligence Agency (Veil: The Secret Wars Of The CIA), and Wired: The Short Life And Fast Times Of John Belushi. He’s received two Pulitzer Prizes and has written 12 No. 1 bestselling books.
To coincide with the end of the first half of President Obama’s first term, Woodward recently published Obama’s Wars, the result of an 18-month investigation into the current administration’s lengthy, contentious deliberations over Afghanistan.
In a recent conversation with The A.V. Club, Woodward, as usual, played his cards close to his chest, but managed to describe a White House he sees as intellectually apart from the military, award an imaginary Best Supporting Actor nod to Vice President Biden, betray affection for General David Petraeus, and express astonishment that America hasn’t been attacked again since September 11.
The A.V. Club: In Obama’s Wars, the president emerges as uniquely isolated. It’s difficult to gauge whose advice he trusts on troop deployment. His White House staff is preoccupied with politics; his military advisors are focused on victory. Obama is somewhere in the middle and seems frustrated, lonely even.
Bob Woodward: That’s interesting. I don’t know if it’s lonely, because of course he can talk to anyone, but there is a divide within him, on a cerebral, intellectual level. He hears and reads all the intelligence and the military analysis, and realizes it’s a pretty dreary situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan—which, of course, is the key to this—and he says, “That’s where the cancer is.” So what do you do? How do you coerce, or find the leverage on Pakistan? How do you fight a war in Afghanistan that isn’t going to be 10 years or a trillion dollars, as he says? So he understands the downside, but he’s the Commander In Chief; he’s got to be the boss, he’s got to lead. So he comes up with his own strategy of 30,000 troops instead of 40,000, but then insists we’re going to withdraw sometime next year.
The word I guess I would use is, so much is unsettled in this war. He wants out. Time and time again, at these meetings, he just lets loose with unambiguous assertions—“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan.” There cannot be any wiggle room. He tells his vice president, “If what I proposed is not working, I’m not going to be like other presidents and stick to this based on my ego or politics.” In other words, he’s not going to be Lyndon Johnson.
As I’ve been thinking about this [book] and talking to people about it, it’s about the Obama we don’t know. The message management in the White House—they have an iron grip on everyone, to a certain extent, determining what the story is going to be. I had 18 months to try to find out what goes on, really, behind the scenes. It’s a look into the way he leads and thinks about things. But the tough decisions are in the future for him, in terms of the war in Afghanistan, the secret war in Pakistan, and the war on terror. He’s got to clarify—because I just think it’s not clear enough—exactly what he wants and where we’re going here.
AVC: As described in the book, Obama keeps going over Afghanistan strategy because he isn’t satisfied with his options. But the people he tasked with generating more options are military minds who are hardwired solely for victory.
BW: That’s a really good word: hardwired. They’re military generals and officers and Admiral Mullen, the Chairman Of The Joint Chiefs—they think in terms of victory, winning, words President Obama never uses. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win. Of course he wants to win. But he sees how hard it is, and he doesn’t want to get into [another] Vietnam, and Biden is there, kind of like a Greek chorus of one, shouting out, “We’re going to get locked into Vietnam if we don’t limit this mission somehow!” The president agrees and insists privately to Biden, “If this doesn’t work, I’m not going to be like the other presidents.”
AVC: Biden is preoccupied with a Vietnam-style quagmire. In the book, Senior Advisor David Axelrod characterizes General Petraeus as “Mr. Counterinsurgency,” someone who thinks “he could simply take his Iraq model on the road.” Are the wars in Vietnam and Iraq relevant historical precedents, or useful in terms of strategy in Afghanistan?
BW: Well, that’s a good question. That’s the way everyone frames a debate: in terms of experience and their knowledge. And, of course, the most immediate experience and knowledge is Iraq and Vietnam. And they don’t necessarily apply. It’s a conundrum of much greater magnitude than I realized when I started this project.
AVC: Obama was 13 when the Vietnam War ended, and as a senator, he was opposed to the war in Iraq. So he has no real visceral experience with Vietnam like Biden, and Petraeus is regarded by some to be the hero of Iraq’s turnaround. The president wants out of Afghanistan, and he’s talking to people with historical precedents he doesn’t share, who want to win—
BW: That’s exactly right. And that’s got to be resolved. I think it’s hanging, and there’s got to be a rigorous clarification. Or there should be, ideally for everyone, but particularly for the troops on the ground.
AVC: At one point, Obama refers to Eisenhower’s famous speech where he coined the term “military-industrial complex,” but he seizes on the passage “Each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.” It’s a reminder about all that’s going on outside of the margins of this book, like the potential collapse of the economy.
BW: Right. But he’s not commander in chief of the economy. He talks to the economists and the treasury secretary, and all they can tell him is “We can try this and we can try that. We could do more of the stimulus package. We could get the Federal Reserve to do the following.” But the belly of the beast here is American business, and the people who own and run the businesses. That’s where the economy is determined. The belly of the beast in this war is in Obama’s head. He could tomorrow say, “You know what? I’ve decided that we didn’t add enough troops. I’m sending the whole military to Afghanistan.” In a practical sense, no one could stop him. I remember talking to academics when I had done four books on [George W.] Bush, and they were saying, “Congress declares war.” And I said, “No, even though it’s in the Constitution, in practice, presidents decide how to employ the force.” I remember saying, “George Bush, when he was president, could order the invasion of Mexico tomorrow.” Somebody stood up in the back and in anguish said, “Don’t give him any ideas.”
It underscores the point of the authority and the concentration of power that’s in the presidency on these matters. Frankly, that’s why I picked it [as a topic]. I also picked it because Obama gets the consequences. You’ve gone through the book. When he goes out to Dover [Air Force base] and looks at the caskets and tells his aides, “I’m coming to see what the reaction of the families is to this.” He gets it and knows the sacrifice. I think that makes it harder, because there’s no chart that’s going to show him “Spend this much money, this much force, this much time, and you’ll win.” It’s what Rumsfeld called the unknown unknown. In the end, this book is an attempt to draw a portrait of [Obama].
AVC: Some in the press characterized that trip as nothing more than a photo-op. But you see it as genuine, with Obama truly wanting to have that experience of seeing the cost of his decisions.
BW: Yeah, exactly. And I think he was trying to assess… One of the worst things that could happen to him, or any president, is the parents and widows of the fallen getting up and rebelling and saying, “Wait a minute. This war makes no sense.” What is really profound in all of this is that they don’t. This is the sacrifice they signed up for, they carry the burden, and rarely do you hear of people who’ve lost somebody in these wars going after Obama.
AVC: Whether it was deliberate or not, in your book, General Petraeus seems to hover on the fringes. There appears to be no real intellectual or personal connection between him and Obama.
BW: Well, that’s exactly one of the problems. And you’ve nailed it. Petraeus is the commander there—he’s the Central Commander, and then he becomes the Afghan commander all by himself, so he has the ball—but there’s not that personal relationship. Obama didn’t have it with [General] McChrystal! He met with McChrystal for 10 minutes. I said to Obama, “You’re picking your Eisenhower.” Obama’s response was to come back very hard and say, “Well, that suggests I’m FDR. I’m not FDR.” I said, “But this is your war.” To spend 10 minutes… The distance is… It’s the president’s job to close that gap.
AVC: Somewhere in the book, someone makes the extraordinary claim, “If there was someone trying to roll Obama, it was Petraeus.”
BW: Yes. That was General Lute, the guy in the White House, the guy who really says to Obama, “You don’t have to do this!”
AVC: And after the failed bombing attempt in Times Square, Petraeus is made to feel like he’s been left out to dry when he refers to the [would-be bomber] Faisal Shahzad as a “lone wolf” in an interview, and then the White House contradicts him by pointing out that the Pakistani Taliban trained Shahzad. You quote Petraeus as saying, “They’re fucking with the wrong guy.”
BW: I mean, that’s just… And there’s the scene where Petraeus talks to [Chief Of Staff] Rahm Emanuel and he says, “I can be your lead sled dog!” And Emanuel says, “Oh, yeah, yeah…” But they never bring him into the inner circle. There’s always a distance here. Part of it is cultural, part of it is, I don’t know, but Petraeus is Obama’s Eisenhower. He’s the guy who is either going to make progress, or lose, or win—or whatever—this war. There’s no one more important to the Obama presidency. Petraeus is very smart, very political. I think he almost has an inhuman focus on his job. There’s no one like him, in terms of level of effort and time against the problem, and the president should have a Mr. President/Dave talk. “What do you think? Where do we go? What can I do? What are you doing? What’s on your mind? What are your worries?” But there is that distance that is… [Pauses.]
AVC: But you could argue that Petraeus nurtures this distance, even if he didn’t create it. His Central Command offices are in Tampa, Florida, where he’s literally in his own tower, where he moves money around to create his own commissions without permission from anybody—
BW: Well, it’s not commissions. He creates this Center Of Excellence, this intelligence and analytical group. More power to them. It reminds me of reporters. In other words, people are going to work five years on things, and they’re going to do the homicide-detective work. We need more homicide-detective work in intelligence—getting into the details, getting on the ground, not sitting up and spinning their wheels analyzing things. “What’s this tribe really like? How do we get to them? Are they on our side? Are they on [Afghanistan President] Karzai’s side? Are they secretly supporting the Taliban? Are they openly supporting the Taliban? How many fighters do they have? Where do they get their money?” Our soldiers on the ground need to know these people. We need to figure out who they are. As do the intelligence people. So that money is some of the best-spent money, because it is directed at gathering real facts.
AVC: To cut to the chase: In your estimation, do you see Petraeus remaining purposefully aloof as an early strategy to go for Obama’s job in 2012?
BW: No. I don’t. Because at these meetings, he says—and I think it’s a telling line—he tells the president, “In the military, we’ll support you, we take orders. We are not self-employed.” That’s exactly the way they operate. At the same time, they push really hard and they erect these four or five blocks of granite and kind of box the president in where he would have to do something very radical in terms of strategy or troop levels. You know, these are his generals, his secretary of defense. I report [Bob] Gates, the secretary of defense, saying to the generals, “I’ll give you as many troops as you need for as long as you need them.” In other words, “I’m going to give you a blank check, but I have battle space like you do in Afghanistan. I have battle space in Washington.” In other words, he has to fight the political battles. I think it’s General Lute who says “The secretary of defense should be the final window into the world of choice for the president.” Gates doesn’t do that. He tells the generals, “I’ll give you as much as you want for as long as you need it.” So at the civilian level, there’s insufficient analysis about “Well, what are the alternatives here?” It’s Vice President Biden—who has a Best Supporting Actor role in this book—making some very potent arguments.
AVC: The scene you describe where Biden arrives at the White House early in the morning to surprise Obama in the passageway between his residence and the Oval Office—
BW: Yeah, isn’t that something? And Biden says, “You’re gonna have to make some goddamn tough decisions, man!” Not “Mr. President,” [Laughs.] but “man.”
AVC: Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton also plays an interesting supporting role in the book. During one of the strategy meetings, you describe a moment where she “seemed to be almost jumping out of her seat, showing every sign she wanted to be called on.” Depending on your political persuasion, so much can be read into that one moment: her ambition, impatience, wanting credit, having the answers, etc. And when it becomes clear that she’s siding with the military and General McChrystal, you write, “It was a definitive moment in her relationship to the White House… Could she ever truly be on the Obama team?”
BW: You really read this closely! That’s a really important line. For the political staff on the White House, like Axelrod, he says to Obama, “Can you ever really trust Hillary?” And there’s this pushback from them. I think, from Obama’s point of view, he decoded Hillary Clinton and said, “She’ll be loyal if she takes the job of secretary of state.” He’s well aware of her loyalty as first lady during some of the most turbulent times in her husband’s presidency, including the Lewinsky affair. She stood by him. So Obama is able to use her, but the political staff just won’t embrace her. Again, there’s that sense, like with Petraeus or with Admiral Mullen, or with Admiral Blair—who was eventually fired as director of national intelligence—that there’s insufficient team-building here.
AVC: Some of the military brass seem to have a problem with Rahm Emanuel. Director Of National Intelligence Dennis Blair gets exasperated at one point, noticing how much access Emanuel has in terms of military decisions.
BW: It was in the context of, [General James] Jones is Obama’s national security advisor, his deputy Tom Donilon has access to the president, Dennis McDonough has access, John Brennan the counterintelligence guy has access, Rahm Emanuel sometimes dabbles and gets involved—so there’s five national security advisors. That’s when Blair says, “It’s the goddamnedest thing I’ve ever seen!”
AVC: How much will Rahm Emanuel’s recent resignation affect how the White House operates in the future?
BW: Well, I describe him as “the hammer.” The second day of the administration, when Petraeus comes in and says we’re going to start working on the number we’ve asked for, it’s Emanuel who slams the door and says, “General, I know you’re doing your job, but I didn’t hear the president of the United States make that decision.” In other words, from the first week, Emanuel’s putting the brakes on. At one point, right on the eve of this decision about the 30,000 [additional troops to be deployed to Afghanistan], Obama says, “Nothing would make Rahm happier than if I said no to the 30,000.” So Rahm’s view is pretty clear.
AVC: You gained access to the 66-page classified “Commander’s Summary,” drafted by General McChrystal, assessing the situation in Afghanistan. You and Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli decided it should be published, but you met first with Pentagon officials to determine what to withhold. You’ve probably been in countless similar meetings, and your own history would imply that you lean instinctively toward the people’s right to know. How do you parse out the bullshit from what is truly in the interest of national security to keep confidential? Do you ever fear that you might leak something that could truly cause harm?
BW: Well, I hope not. And I listened very carefully to the arguments. We listened to the arguments on the McChrystal Report, and we even cut out the line about “inadequate intelligence.” Which we now know is, of course, part of the problem chapter and verse, but the Pentagon didn’t want it in there. But we were able to publish 98 percent of that assessment, and tell people what was really going on. That document is very important in the whole narrative here, because when we published it, I had people in the White House who were furious, and then as they got further into the strategic assessment, and the review by Obama was done—a number of them didn’t understand how for McChrystal, it was a cry from the heart: “This war is going the wrong way and I don’t have enough troops. If you don’t give me more, we’re going to have mission failure.” Only getting that into the public forum focused people on what McChrystal was really saying.
This, of course, is my problem with all this classified information that’s over-classified. That could have been put out. Why not tell the world what exactly is going on? I think everyone benefited. It’s a smart assessment. It lays out all of the issues, many of which exist today. The part about where they were going to conduct operations in the future, we didn’t publish, of course. So there’s a way to balance it. Now, I always am very aggressive and putting out much more than people would like, but that’s the business I’m in.
AVC: In these meetings, they spend weeks trying to define the distinction between the words disrupt, dismantle, degrade, and defeat. It’s amazing how much of the decisions in Afghanistan were based simply on what language to use when describing the mission as it pertains to the Taliban.
BW: Isn’t it? They hadn’t decided, and then they did this strategic implementation plan, and Gates said “Well, let’s make it ‘defeat.’” The most ambitious goal. Then they started looking at it and they realized, “Now wait a minute. The Taliban are part of the fabric of Afghanistan. You can’t defeat them, so you degrade them.” Well what does that mean to the soldier? “Come on, men! Let’s go degrade the enemy!”
AVC: You live in Washington, D.C. with your wife. You have two children of your own. You’ve had the unique experience of witnessing up close the people charged not only with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with keeping this country free from terrorism. Do you feel safe with these people in charge?
BW: There’s never total safety. You look at all these warnings, and when I interviewed President Obama, he said—what has become very controversial to some people—he said, “We can absorb a terrorist attack.” And went on to say, “We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but we can absorb it.” A lot of Republicans jumped on him and said “He’s almost giving up.” I think what he’s doing—because he realizes he lives in this sea of warnings about attacks, that someday one’s going to get through. As he said, “One man, one bomb,” and it’s going to traumatize the country. I think he’s trying to say, “We’ll deal with it; we can absorb it. We’re strong.”
It’s astonishing there hasn’t been another attack since 9/11. Absolutely astonishing. One of the mysteries. It’s the sequence of good luck and whatever has happened here, but it’s almost heightened the worry about that one small attack. And Dick Cheney’s out there waiting in the wings ready to pounce and say “See? It’s because you let down your guard. It’s because you didn’t have enhanced interrogation. It’s because you’re not us.” It could be a big deal. So I think Obama sees intellectually that there could be another attack, and I think he was speaking honestly, realistically, “We could absorb a terrorist attack.”
AVC: Would the capturing or killing of Osama bin Laden allow the president to declare some kind of victory, symbolic or otherwise? Could it act as a pivot point to allow him to move toward an entirely new anti-terrorist strategy that is really his own, instead of this inherited quagmire in Afghanistan?
BW: It would be a big deal. But maybe only for a day or two, because it would depend on what followed. If there were terrorist attacks in this country or elsewhere in the world, all the analysts would be on TV and say, “See? Bin Laden wasn’t that important to the organization.” So it would depend on what would happen, but you’ve posed an interesting idea that if that happened, you could use it as a pivot point to say “Okay, we’ve essentially dismantled and defeated al-Qaeda. They’re not in Afghanistan.” And you could have some sort of significant troop withdrawal. At the same time, the war on the ground is ugly and violent, and we’re losing a lot of troops.
You can’t divorce yourself, when you look at this, from the sacrifice and payment some individuals and families are making in this war. The responsibility and price is unevenly distributed. I asked this question of people in Obama’s circle working on this, “What do we owe the people who are over there?” And one of them said, “Everything. They’re our surrogates.” I then asked “What are we giving them? Are we giving them everything?” Of course, the answer is, “No.” Part of what we’re not giving them is the clarity of mission and leadership and focus and commitment. The Obama campaign of 2008, the clarion call, “Yes we can!” We haven’t heard it about these wars.