Rob Forrest on Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars”

Rob Forrest on Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars

From a discussion October 20, 2010

Here, in our ongoing discussion about Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars,” particle physicist Rob Forrest examines chapter 4, in which Woodward outlines the Bush administration’s response to a report on their actions in Afghanistan, along with the application of the Bush Doctrine to Pakistan following the Mumbai attacks.

Two things stuck out in chapter 4. First, the fact that Condoleezza Rice didn’t think that Pakistan was a very big deal. At least it didn’t come out that way in the text, and looking back on news reports, it looks like this was very true, especially in a report that came out in the last few months of the Bush administration, as is reported in Woodward’s book. The book pointed to a very aimless war in Afghanistan, little progress after seven years, and a focus on the wrong country in terms of location of active terrorist cells. It’s really incredible, because now we assign Pakistan paramount importance in terms of terrorism. Afghanistan, in terms of terrorism, is more of an afterthought.

But it turns out that the Bush administration, for seven years, was operating in Afghanistan in a way that implied the terrorists were working there. This is totally separate from the way that we look at the war under the Obama administration. Under the Obama administration, the whole point of the war is to eliminate the terrorists who live in Pakistan, and to stabilize and establish a government in Afghanistan.

So this report came out in the last days of the Bush administration, and it basically said that the war in Afghanistan was a complete mess. This is in chapter 4. As the Bush administration was prone to do, they ignored this damning report about Afghanistan and explicitly punted the problem to the next administration, without taking corrective measures to their failed policy. Rice was “unhappy” with the review (page 44), so they decided not to release the report to the public. The book states:

“We’re not going to release this publicly,” Bush said. “Look, I’m in my last couple of months. A public release will just make people scratch their heads.”

And later:

“I don’t want any public rollout,” Bush said. “There won’t be any rollout plan. The rollout plan will be up to the new administration coming in, because this is going to be their bailiwick now.”

So the Bush administration failed in Afghanistan, they had no plan, and they disagreed with the central premise that we now assign to that region. That’s totally astounding; that basically says that seven years in Afghanistan was a complete waste, and they knew it. They had no idea of what they were doing, and when presented with the review, they willfully ignored it. It is really astounding these people controlled our country for years.

Then comes the part about the bombings in India. Now this is interesting because of the Bush Doctrine, which basically states a zero-tolerance policy for terrorism. This is a classic, neoconservative, zero-tolerance, black-and-white worldview. There is no gray area with this philosophy, no wiggle room. And you can see what this leads to when applied to the bombings in India. When you apply this policy in a blanket fashion, and it turns out the country that is at fault has nukes, suddenly you find yourself in a situation that doesn’t really lend itself to black-and-white decision-making. It makes it very hard to follow through with the neocon ideology.

Because to follow the Bush Doctrine, we would have to attack and invade Pakistan. After all, they were the ones that essentially provided material support for the Mumbai attacks. So the Bush Doctrine fails in the case of the bombings in Mumbai, and in the book, you can see them struggling with how to deal with this.

You can invade Afghanistan because they are a poor, defenseless country, or Iraq because they don’t really have an army. But the obvious conclusion from the bombings in India is that you should invade Pakistan. But they have nukes. Suddenly you’re in a situation where the country to which you are going to apply the Bush Doctrine is not so wimpy anymore.

In the real world, we have this very gray area, but the decision-makers are looking at the world in black and white. It’s really fascinating that the Bush administration can live with this disparity intellectually. Now it turns out that the links between Pakistan’s intelligence and these Mumbai attacks were not as direct as initially suspected, but in the initial days after the attacks, this wasn’t clear.

Now let’s drill deeper into the philosophy of the Bush administration. Above all else, Bush held a few principles. One, that he was divinely inspired; that God led him and spoke through him. Two, that the loyalty of his staff was of paramount importance. Three, that the world was a black-and-white place. That basically there are bad guys and good guys, and the purpose of the United States in the world was to eliminate the bad guys to make it safe for the good guys. To Bush, America’s place in the world was unique and clear-cut: eliminate evil. And the world is this black-and-white place, so evil is easy to identify.

These principles come into play when they’re reviewing this summary report of Afghanistan, disagreeing with its findings, and not releasing it publicly. Bush does not like the fact that this report was conducted. He tells the author of the report, “I’d rather not be reading this.” When you combine that with Condoleezza Rice’s insistence that the report necessarily must be flawed, you can kind of construct a picture of what fluidity reality had become in the Bush White House. They didn’t want information that disturbed their fundamental premises, but those premises were crap. So this led down a rabbit hole of self-denial, enforced all the way through the command chain, because the people that Bush picked for his staff were basically yes-men. They were picked for their loyalty, not their competence.

So complete falsehoods and misrepresentations of real data existed throughout the whole top of the command chain. Rice didn’t agree with the report, Bush didn’t want to read the report, they didn’t release the report publicly, and the report contained in it, as I said, basically the thesis of how we look at Afghanistan and Pakistan today. Which, again, is that Pakistan is the main problem, while Afghanistan is really a place that we’re cleaning and holding. This is why we are at war, and why, for seven years, the Bush administration achieved absolutely nothing. This is a concrete example of neoconservative thinking leading to devastating consequences.

Rob Forrest is a particle physicist who has worked on nuclear non-proliferation policy.

For Rob’s take on chapters 1 through 3, click here.

Stay tuned throughout the fall of 2010 for more of Rob’s thoughts on Obama’s Wars.


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