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Bob Woodward on ‘Obama’s Wars’
Posted on Oct 14, 2010
The veteran journalist talks to Truthdig’s James Harris about his new book, which zeroes in on a war-averse president struggling to impose order on chaos abroad without losing his grip on the home front.
Note: Transcript below.
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James Harris: Welcome to Truthdig. James Harris along with “the legend,” they call him: Bob Woodward, the man who broke the story that put Richard Nixon out of business. But we’re here today to talk about his new book, “Obama’s Wars.” Bob, thank you for joining us on Truthdig today.
Bob Woodward: Thank you.
JH: I read your book last night. I bought a copy at the local Barnes & Noble. I think it’s …
BW: They didn’t send you one? They should have.
JH: They did, they did. But you know what, I left that copy on a plane, and I said you know what, I need to reference some quotes, so I went and picked up a copy. I want to say, I felt like I was in the room; I got the sense I was watching a current play unfold. What was the most important piece for you?
BW: The focus is the war in Afghanistan; the secret war, Pakistan; and then the war on terror. And this is … it tracks in microscopic detail, or as somebody said, “spreadsheet-like detail,” the 19 months that President Obama walks in dealing with and making decisions in these wars. And so you see him as a kind of law professor, questioning people, identifying issues, being skeptical. You also see his emotions; he erupts a number of times. You see the dilemma of the war, you see the intransigence of the military that will not give him other options. And he goes to the … I guess the most important part, he gets to the heart of the matter, and that is that the cancer in this war is really in Pakistan, where the safe havens for al-Qaida exist, where the safe havens for the Taliban leadership that is fighting us in Afghanistan. And they have sanctuary in Pakistan in cities and camps, and so they can train their fighters, re-equip them, and then give them actual, you know, weekends—rest and relaxation—and then send them back over the border into Afghanistan to kill American soldiers. And Leon Panetta, the CIA director, is quoted in the book saying this is a crazy kind of war, and it really is crazy.
JH: It seems to me that as we’ve watched this war, it was about al-Qaida, then it became about the Taliban. What did you learn from the administration, as you wrote this book, about the distinction between the two?
BW: That’s a really good question, because it’s so confusing it can make your head hurt.
BW: Al-Qaida attacked us on 9/11. They were then … they had their sanctuary in Afghanistan. We invaded Afghanistan, drove them out, they went across the border into Pakistan. And as President Obama learns two days after he’s elected president, the intel people tell him, “Look, Pakistan is living a lie; they fight some of these terrorist groups, and at the same time they secretly created some of them and support them.” And right now, in the fall of this year, a lot of these groups are plotting to attack the United States. The Times Square would-be bomber, back in May—he was trained and supported by one of these Pakistani terrorist groups. And Obama, when he’d looked at all the intelligence, sent his national security adviser and CIA director over to Pakistan to read them the riot act, and said, “You’ve got to do more about these sanctuaries.” And the intelligence on who’s plotting and how many plots there are and how difficult it is to track them will make your hair stand on end.
JH: I feel like there’s a football that’s a-fumblin’, and we can’t put our hands on it. ’Cause it was Iraq, and now it’s Afghanistan, and now it’s Pakistan, and we are over there just making a mess of matters. Did that ever come up?
BW: Yes—whether we’re causing as many problems as we are solving. This is the difficulty of this war, and what I’ve tried to do here … it’s a window on the way President Obama thinks. Though we … people learned a lot about him in the 2008 campaign, he gives lots of speeches, he does town hall meetings, he answers reporters’ questions … the message management in this White House has been so good I think you really don’t know who he is. And what I’ve got are thousands of words of him being quoted, trying to figure out what to do. You’re right—it’s kind of a football that’s still flying around in the air and on the ground, and it’s not clear how to jump on it and get control of the situation. There are so many unsettled components of it. I mean, let me just take one. The secretary of defense, Bob Gates, a critical player by most accounts, has done a good job as secretary of defense; he was a holdover from the Bush administration, agreed to stay one year. I recount seeing where Obama called Gates in last year and said, “I want you to stay for the whole term,” for four years. And Gates feels pre-empted, feels that the president enters into a negotiation with him, and that the president sounds like a rug merchant. And they go back and forth, and Gates agrees to stay for another year, but psychologically he’s got one foot out the door. You know in any institution when the leader is about to leave, or thinking about life after the Pentagon, in this case, it’s not clear where things are going. That’s something that has to be settled. The national security adviser, Gen. [James] Jones, is leaving; who’s going to take that job? How do you make the National Security Council a more functioning entity? The head of intelligence, Adm. [Dennis] Blair, was fired in the spring; they’ve got a new man in Gen. [James] Clapper. How are the intelligence agencies functioning? The rift between the political White House and the military is as clear as it has ever been. The news on the ground in Afghanistan about how the war is going is … though they say there’s some progress, there’s a lot of bad news here. So, we are at a point where the president in the next year is going to have to make probably the most critical decisions in this war, which will define not just an important part of his presidency and his leadership, but will define the position of the United States in the world. Do we do well in this war? Are we smart? Or, as Vice President Biden worries all the time, do we wind up stuck with Obama’s Vietnam?
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