Friday, September 24, 2010

Barack Obama, Bob Woodward, and the War in Afghanistan

Our Scripps Howard column this week is about Bob Woodward's new book, "Obama's Wars." My take:

Bob Woodward's new book reminds us of an important proposition: American democracy and long-term war are a bad mix.

It's certainly bad for democracy. One of the most disturbing revelations is the lengths that President Obama went to in order to ensure the military obeyed his orders in Afghanistan -- dictating a six-page single-spaced document dictating the terms of 2009's surge of 40,000 troops to that country. Why the detail? Because the president felt sure his generals and admirals would find "wiggle room" to violate the spirit of the order setting a 2011 deadline to begin drawing down troops there.

The American Constitution is clear: The president is the commander-in-chief. He makes the country's big decisions about how we fight war. Generals and admirals give their best military advice, and then execute the decisions the president has made. But top military officials clearly see themselves as political players in the process, lobbying the president and circumventing his orders. Woodward reports Gen. David Petraeus told his staff Obama was "(messing) with the wrong man." Such reports should concern anybody concerned with Constitutional order.

But if war is bad for democracy, democracy can also be bad for war. If it goes on too long, the politicians in charge can take their eyes off the bottom line -- what can be done to enhance American security -- and start factoring partisan politics into the mix. Obama tells Woodward in the book that he set the 2011 withdrawal deadline because "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party." That is, even from a liberal viewpoint, a chilling admission.

"Obama's War" affirms that at this point, there's little America can gain -- and a whole lot it can lose -- from continued large-scale fighting in Afghanistan. We can't fix that country. The longer we stay there, though, the more we might find our own democracy in need of repair.

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