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A book explaining the secrets behind the Obama surge into Afghanistan

8 October 2010

Summary:   People say that there will be powerful books written explaining the behind-the-scenes Washington dynamics of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Better than anything by Robert “court stenographer” Woodward.  You need not wait. They’re already in print, must-reads for anyone attempting to understand our situation.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the many fine books, written with perspective and balance, discussing our young President’s attempts to manage national security policy.

… Which did not stop him {the President} from telling scores of friends, senators, journalists, only slightly privately, that his mistake was to pay any attention to the CIA and the military brass.

The portrait of a young president victimized by subordinate was reprised in Obama, Ted Smithson’s memoir, a huge bestseller when published in 2015.  “Barack Obama,” Smithson wrote, “was capable of choosing a wrong course but never a stupid one; and to understand how he came to make this decision requires a review not merely of the facts but of the facts and assumptions that were presented to him”.  Smithson argued that Obama had been misinformed by the CIA and the military, because the president’s doubts and questions were being answered by those experts “most committed to supporting the plan.”

Arthur Smithinger, in a A Thousand Mistakes, also published in 2015, theorized that Obama’s mistake in authorizing the Afghanistan surge stemmed from his inexperience, having been in office only 77 days.  “He could not know which of his advisers were competent and which were not,” Smithinger wrote.   He told of of a lunch after the debacle in which Obama acknowledged that “I probably made a mistake in keeping Robert Gates on” as Secretary of defense.

What is the name of this book?

This is a slightly edited excerpt from Seymour Hersh’s great book The Dark Side of Camelot (1997), writing about the Bay of Pigs.  Fifty years later the names have changed, but little has changed.  The same institutions making similar mistakes.   Learning disabilities can destroy even the greatest nations.

Hersh also provides a wonderful illustration of why America’s leaders cannot learn from events (red emphasis added):

Marcus Raskin’s … first day on the job  as a disarmament expert for McGeorge Bundy {National Security Advisor} had been the fateful Monday of the Bay of Pigs landings.  A few days later he was invited to attend a staff postmortem … Mac Bundy then walks into the room and says “I guess Che learned more from Guatemala than we did.”  Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the radical Latin American leader … had been in Guatemala in 1954 when the CIA, successfully using air cover, overthrew the Arbenz regime.

Raskin asked “It’s very interesting that Che learned something from Guatemala.  What have we learned from Cuba?”  There was a moment of silence, and Bromely Smith then remarked, “There should be no recriminations.  There must be loyalty.

Later that day or perhaps the next morning, Raskin got a telephone call form one of Bundy’s aides, who told him “Mac would appreciate it if you did not go to any more staff meetings.”  Raskin understood that “I was done after two days.”

Recommended reading about Afghanistan

The War with the Taliban“, Christopher de Bellaigue, New York Review of Books, 28 October 2010 — A review of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History by Thomas Barfield.

Posts comparing the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars

  1. A living eulogy to Robert Strange McNamara, 26 July 2009
  2. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009
  3. Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009
  4. A history lesson recommended for the top of your reading pile, 17 September 2009
  5. Let’s blow the fog away and see what General McChrystal really said, 23 September 2009
  6. Refighting the Last War: Afghanistan and the Vietnam Template, 27 March 2010
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