'Obama's Wars': The gang that couldn't shoot straight -- or shut up

By Eliot A. Cohen
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Senior Washington officials, in this administration or its predecessors, talk to Bob Woodward for all kinds of reasons -- to fluff up their vanity, to avenge slights, to neutralize rivals, to gratify egos or, most laughably, to shape the historical record. Their bosses may even instruct them to blab. But the leakers do not control their audiences, and the following fictional interior monologues, as plausible as any recorded by the author of "Obama's Wars," suggest some of the unintended consequences that may result.

-- Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "They have told this journalist that I am a manic depressive who is 'off his medications.' They despise me. They seek to humiliate me. They would get rid of me if they could, and they most certainly will betray me. I had best betray them first."

-- An ambassador of an allied country: "We fight alongside the Americans in Afghanistan, and soldiers' blood is as dear to mothers in our country as it is in theirs. They refuse to show us classified memos but pass them to a journalist for publication. And when they conduct their 'strategic review,' do they bother to consult us?"

-- Mullah Mohammad Omar: "Extraordinary. Someone on their side gives the president's strategy memorandum -- written in his own hand -- for publication. My intelligence service could never have obtained this on its own. Leaders who do not understand how to keep secrets cannot win wars, whatever machines their armies possess. And a leader who instructs his subordinates to avoid 'belligerent' language, who talks of 'exit strategies' and 'off ramps,' does not have the will to fight."

-- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "I come from a culture that understands storytelling. The president's advisers do not understand that a convincing tale can have only one plot. They say, on the one hand, that this book shows the president as brilliant, in command, dominating -- and then they tell a story of his military boxing him in, denying him any real choice, until he yields to their wishes. I believe the latter story. I do not know how smart he is, but I know that he cannot impose his will. They think he is wise; I think he is weak."

-- Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: "I agree with President Ahmadinejad."

-- A brigadier general in the Pentagon, new to Washington's multiple cultures of petty dishonor. "I don't get it. The president fired one of our truly great commanders not for things that he said but for tolerating indiscretion, disloyalty and disrespect among his subordinates -- but do these people apply anything remotely like that standard to themselves?

"If the president felt he was getting bad advice, why didn't he just stop his review until he got real options? Or fire the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Why does he write a six-page memo that reads more like a prenuptial agreement written by a pessimistic lawyer than a strategy document? Are these guys setting up the uniforms to take the hit if this war goes south? I thought we were past that.

"He says that if he continues with the war he can't carry the Democratic Party with him. Has he tried? When was the last speech he gave on Afghanistan? Does he understand that leading soldiers, including generals, means not just being smart and picking an option as if he were ordering from a menu at a Chinese restaurant but also giving us some steel in the spine and fire in the belly when we begin to lose hope? Generals get tired and lose heart, too, although we're trained to hide it.

"So what was this strategy review all about anyway? The president announced a new strategy in March of 2009. Did he not understand that the military would come in with a bill for that document? And why did they do that second review last fall in public, with everybody leaking to the papers, with political advisers in the room and those well-photographed visits to Dover Air Force Base to greet caskets coming home? I just don't get it."

-- The father of a lance corporal headed to Kandahar: "They're sending my son where a bomb or a bullet may tear a limb or his life away. Do the people in the White House still believe in this 'war of necessity'? And if not, can any of them look me in the eye?"

Eliot A. Cohen is a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company