White House doesn't dispute Woodward book's portrayal of Obama

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 6:19 PM

With juicy nuggets from the new Bob Woodward book on President Obama starting to emerge, the official White House reaction so far is: It's just fine.

Many of Obama's senior advisers have already obtained and read the book, "Obama's Wars," and are satisfied with the image it conveys of the president, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

"The President comes across in the [Afghanistan] review and throughout the decisionmaking process as a Commander in Chief who is analytical, strategic, and decisive, with a broad view of history, national security, and his role," the official said in an e-mail.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, comparing Woodward's book to a recent book by former Obama administration automobile task force chief Steven Rattner, said the net effect is positive for the president.

"In two very different books - one regarding the turnaround and recovery of the auto industry and the other regarding the turnaround of the Afghan war - what emerges in both is that despite difficult circumstances, the president brings a consistently tough, determined and clear-eyed strategic focus to these crises," Emanuel said.

But details of confidential meetings and classified documents, along with damning quotes from the principals, paint a picture of Obama's team that is at odds with the perception of decisiveness at the White House. In Woodward's telling, the president oversaw a staff of bickering advisers and an administration that was rife with infighting during the Afghanistan policy review. If there were any remaining doubts that the "No Drama Obama" mantra left the building long ago, the Woodward book puts them to rest.

That narrative arc is not new. Details of the Afghanistan-Pakistan rupture first emerged last September, when Woodward obtained a report from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, describing his urgent demand for more troops. The document was the basis for a report that month in The Washington Post, where Woodward is an associate editor.

During the three-month review process that followed, rifts between senior advisers who supported sending more troops to Afghanistan (McChrystal, Gen. David H. Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) and those who wanted to draw down (including Emanuel and Vice President Biden) were widely reported.

In responding to the book Wednesday, another senior administration official said, "I think the president comes across pretty well in the book, even if it looks crazy around him."

The first senior administration official played down the internal disagreements, saying "the debates in the book are well known because the policy review was covered so exhaustively."

The official offered points of proof from the text, noting Woodward's statement that Obama had focused the review around the "central questions" of whether al-Qaeda could be defeated, whether the Taliban also needed to be defeated and whether a counterinsurgency strategy could be effective given the Afghan government's limitations. Woodward also describes Obama as a voracious reader of intelligence reports - another positive the official noted.

The official also commented that the book portrays Obama as "preparing relentlessly." Richard C. Holbrooke, the president's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, at one point reprimands his staff for complaining about preparing analysis papers that went unread, saying they were read by one person - the one "they were intended for."

One complaint the White House had about the book concerned not its contents but the way it was portrayed in an early account in the New York Times, which quoted Biden as calling Holbrooke "the most egotistical bastard I have ever met."

In fact, on page 72 of the book, Woodward includes the full quote from Biden, which concludes, "but he's maybe the right guy for the job." The book makes clear that Biden was describing Holbrooke to Obama in those terms during the transition, before his appointment, not during the review process.

"The New York Times story misrepresents what appears in the book," a third senior administration official said. "The Times story leaves the impression that the vice president made this comment during the Afghanistan policy review, when in fact - as the book makes clear - it occurred during the transition. The Times story also leaves out the full quote from the book. In fact, the vice president was giving a lighthearted nod to Holbrooke's reputation while endorsing him for one of the most difficult jobs in government. The two of them go way back, have been friends for years, and the vice president has enormous regard for Holbrooke's abilities."

Many Republican candidates had no immediate comment, but Liz Cheney, a leading critic of Obama's national security strategy, issued a scathing statement. Cheney, chairman of the group Keep America Safe, seized on the president's statement to Woodward that "we can absorb a terrorist attack."

"This comment suggests an alarming fatalism on the part of President Obama and his administration," she wrote. "Once again the President seems either unwilling or unable to do what it takes to keep this nation safe. The President owes the American people an explanation."

"Obama's Wars" is also reverberating nationwide and globally, especially in Afghanistan, where one of the book's main assertions - that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has manic depression - has already been denied.

"This is a baseless, inflammatory comment that has its roots in a defaming propaganda campaign against President Karzai's personal integrity, leadership and his stances on matters of Afghan national interests," Afghan government spokesman Waheed Omar said Wednesday. "The president is safe and sound. I can confirm that he takes no medication."

Omar said Karzai administration officials are reviewing the material that has been released about the book. "We will need some time to react," he said.

The allegation about Karzai's mental health is attributed in the book to U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry. Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said the embassy would not comment on the quote.

A senior NATO official in Kabul said the sparring among Obama administration officials depicted in the book hurts the credibility of the alliance's mission in Afghanistan.

The varying ways in which U.S. officials have described the July 2011 deadline to begin drawing down American troops has been particularly harmful, the official said.

"That kind of example is unhelpful because it sends mixed signals," said the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. "Those who are supporting the legitimate [Afghan] government, those who are fighting it - Pakistan, India, Russia, you name it - end up confused about our commitment. That is really unhelpful."

Correspondent Ernesto Londono in Kabul and staff writer Dan Balz in Washington contributed to this report.

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