| ||Politics by Other Means|
The Wall Street Journal
By Mark Moyar
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Last week, on the eve of publication of David E. Sanger's "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power," the New York Times ran an excerpt that detailed secret American cyberattacks on Iran. Sens. John McCain and Saxby Chambliss promptly demanded an investigation, charging that this and other recent leaks of secret information were coming from administration officials more concerned about the president's re-election than about the nation's security.
Robert Mueller, the FBI director, has indeed opened an investigation. It will be interesting to see how it plays out if, as seems probable, some of the leaks came from senior White House officials. Mr. Sanger's book and Daniel Klaidman's "Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency" divulge the details of top-level deliberations—details that were almost certainly known only to the administration's inner circle. The leaked information, moreover, fits suspiciously well into the tough-on-defense narrative that Barack Obama's re-election team is crafting.
Given the extraordinary access that Messrs. Sanger and Klaidman apparently had, we would do well to give their books the most careful attention. Their narratives are likely to be the most thorough accounts of America's recent national-security efforts that we shall receive before the November election. While the authors' closeness to the administration is cause for caution, it does have the advantage of insulating them from the charge of partisan hostility when they criticize the administration.
Mr. Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent of the New York Times, and Mr. Klaidman, a special correspondent at Newsweek, are veteran reporters who write well, and both exploit their administration sources to good effect. Neither, however, seems to have many sources within the military or intelligence communities. Nor does either reveal much about their leaders—people like Gen. David Petraeus, Adm. Mike Mullen and Adm. Dennis Blair, who in Bob Woodward's 2010 book, "Obama's Wars," frequently questioned White House policies. An account that incorporates all the key perspectives must await another day. Even so, both authors present large amounts of valuable information, most of it unrelated to Iran or cyberwarfare; and at times they challenge what we might call the voter-courting, David Axelrod version of recent history.
Mr. Klaidman's "Kill or Capture," focused primarily on counterterrorism, depicts Mr. Obama as a balancer of pragmatism and liberal ideology, with pragmatism usually winning the day. What pragmatism means is not always clear. At times, the term seems to refer to the pragmatism of Defense Secretary Robert Gates—aimed at finding a solution without regard for ideology. At other times, it's the pragmatism of Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff—aimed at taking the most politically advantageous course.
Mr. Klaidman contends that Emanuel-like pragmatism led Mr. Obama to abandon causes popular with liberals but not with the general public, like prosecuting terrorists in civilian courts. As Mr. Klaidman sees it, the frequent anti-terrorist drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere show a combination of Gates and Emanuel pragmatism at work. Mr. Emanuel himself, Mr. Klaidman notes, prodded the CIA to divulge classified information about the drone strikes because "the muscular attacks could have a huge political upside for Obama."
On the matter of terrorist detentions, Mr. Obama's ideological principles prevailed. Liberal ideology, Mr. Klaidman explains, kept the president from establishing a viable terrorist-detention system; the result was a policy that compelled the administration to kill terror suspects rather than capture them. This outcome appalled not only intelligence professionals, who now had no one to interrogate, but also Obama loyalists like National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
In one of his most telling passages, Mr. Klaidman depicts a passive commander in chief who often procrastinated in the hopes that problems would go away, a sharp divergence from the engaged and proactive president of the official narrative. "The president's own elusiveness created confusion about who was in control of policy," Mr. Klaidman writes. "In this vacuum his advisers fought brutally, each side invoking the president in support of its cause."
Both Mr. Klaidman and Mr. Sanger praise Mr. Obama for finding and killing Osama bin Laden. Both accept the White House's claim that an Obama missive to CIA Director Leon Panetta on June 2, 2009, spurred the CIA to a more vigorous pursuit of al Qaeda's leader. Thus, they join the White House in shifting some of the credit for finding bin Laden from the CIA to Mr. Obama. Here the authors' narrowness of sources led them astray. The author Peter Bergen, while researching his just-published book "Manhunt," about the search for bin Laden, asked five senior CIA officials about this claim and learned that all five found "laughable" the suggestion that Mr. Obama's exhortation resulted in increased attention or effort.
Messrs. Klaidman and Sanger both echo the official Obama-administration argument that the bin Laden raid was tremendously risky for the president, but they fail to address the potential objections. Wouldn't inaction have been riskier, subjecting Mr. Obama to charges of letting the world's worst terrorist get away—the same charges that Democrats leveled at George W. Bush after Tora Bora, the redoubt from which bin Laden escaped in late 2001? And if risking the lives of Navy SEALs was so politically hazardous, why hasn't Mr. Obama suffered political damage for the lives lost during innumerable special-operations missions against less important targets in Afghanistan?
Mr. Sanger, whose "Confront and Conceal" covers a wider range of national-security topics than Mr. Klaidman's book, makes a strong case that the bin Laden raid carried large risks of antagonizing Pakistan. The best evidence is the actual Pakistani backlash, which has included reduced cooperation on counterterrorism. He notes that the White House's boastful publicizing of the raid exacerbated Pakistani anger over America's intrusion. We also learn that the bragging so infuriated Mr. Gates that he advised Mr. Donilon to adopt a new communications strategy titled "Shut the f— up."
In his chapters on Afghanistan, Mr. Sanger asserts that Mr. Obama did not like the idea of sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December 2009—the so-called surge. But he did it anyway, to "fulfill his campaign promise to focus on the Afghan War." Neither hawks nor doves are likely to find solace in such a revelation.
During 2010, Mr. Sanger continues, the slow progress of counterinsurgency and nation building soured Mr. Obama on the war. The following year, his disenchantment led him to reject a recommendation from Gen. Petraeus, then the top commander in Afghanistan, to keep most of the surge troops in place through 2012. Mr. Sanger says that it was the right decision, because Mr. Obama's drones strikes had by this time removed any threats to the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Here, too, the experts in the military and intelligence community need to be heard. In recent months, leading CIA counterterrorism experts like Andrew Liepman have said publicly that al Qaeda has been weakened but not defeated. The Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban—all of which have histories of collaborating with and morphing into al Qaeda—remain strong in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The first two are enjoying robust support from the Pakistani government, thanks partly to Mr. Obama's Afghan retrenchment, which has heightened Pakistan's fears of Indian meddling in Afghanistan and thereby increased Pakistan's need for Afghan friends.
Among the most noteworthy of Mr. Sanger's discoveries is that the administration now plans to reduce America's "footprint" in Afghanistan to between 10,000 and 15,000 troops, stationed at a handful of bases. Mr. Obama has thus adopted a plan crafted by Vice President Biden a few years ago, which Gen. Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and other experts fiercely opposed because they knew that it would deprive counterterrorist forces of the intelligence required to find the enemy.
In addition, Mr. Sanger observes, America's ability to kill terrorists with drones is on the decline. Mr. Obama's intensification of the drone strikes has enraged the Pakistanis, leading them in April 2012 to demand an end to all such strikes. Pakistani complaints and reduced Pakistani cooperation have contributed to a precipitous drop in the number of strikes, from 117 in 2010 to 64 in 2011 and 17 in the first five months of 2012.
For more insight into the difficulties of shrinking the American footprint, we should look at recent events in Iraq, which are missing from the accounts of Mr. Klaidman and Mr. Sanger, not to mention the re-election spin doctors. When the Obama administration pulled the remaining U.S. conventional forces out of Iraq late last year, it vowed to maintain a large counterterrorism capability in the country, composed of CIA officers and private contractors. But, as Siobhan Gorman and Adam Entous recently reported in The Wall Street Journal, the Iraqi government soon imposed inordinate constraints on U.S. personnel and cut off sources of information. Unable to carry out its mission in full, the CIA is slashing its presence in Iraq to 40% of previous levels. The Afghans may treat us no better if we withdraw our troops into fortresses to protect purely American interests while ignoring the ethnic civil war that would likely break out.
The departure of U.S. combat forces has also allowed Iraq to fall into the lap of our most dangerous adversary, Iran. The state-sponsored smuggling of oil to Iran from Iraq is undermining the sanctions with which the United States seeks to throttle the Iranian regime. The Iraqi government has permitted Iranian aircraft to fly weapons to Syria's security forces despite heated American objections. Earlier this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki needed outside help in handling recalcitrant political opponents. He didn't wake Mr. Obama with a phone call at 3 a.m. Instead, he dialed the Iranians. —Mr. Moyar is the author of "A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq."