Afghanistan Skirmishes in the Executive

It's been known for some time that powerful figures within the Obama administration don't see eye to eye on Afghanistan policy--that as the new White House examined how to handle the war, two camps emerged, one (led by VP Joe Biden) calling for a scaled back mission, and another calling for a full counterinsurgency strategy. It's also no secret that a degree of animosity and personal resentment existed within the president's team, shown most publicly in Rolling Stone's profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

So Bob Woodward's new book on the president and Afghanistan doesn't introduce the concept of administration infighting, but it does offer a few specifics of who doesn't get along and what they've said about each other. From the New York Times preview of Woodward's book, due out next week:

Although the internal divisions described have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known and offers new details. Mr. Biden called Mr. Holbrooke "the most egotistical bastard I've ever met." A variety of administration officials expressed scorn for James L. Jones, the retired Marine general who is national security adviser, while he referred to some of the president's other aides as "the water bugs" or "the Politburo."

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thought his vice chairman, Gen. James E. Cartwright, went behind his back, while General Cartwright dismissed Admiral Mullen because he wasn't a war fighter. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates worried that General Jones would be succeeded by his deputy, Thomas E. Donilon, who would be a "disaster."

Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was overall commander for the Middle East until becoming the Afghanistan commander this summer, told a senior aide that he disliked talking with David M. Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, because he was "a complete spin doctor." General Petraeus was effectively banned by the administration from the Sunday talk shows but worked private channels with Congress and the news media.

And the book recounts incidents in which Adm. Dennis C. Blair, then the national intelligence director, fought with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, and John O. Brennan, the counterterrorism adviser.

During a daily intelligence briefing in May 2009, Mr. Blair warned the president that radicals with American and European passports were being trained in Pakistan to attack their homelands. Mr. Emanuel afterward chastised him, saying, "You're just trying to put this on us so it's not your fault." Mr. Blair also skirmished with Mr. Brennan about a report on the failed airliner terrorist attack on Dec. 25. Mr. Obama later forced Mr. Blair out.

What does come through, heavily, in this preview is President Obama's own reservations, trepidation, and political concern, as he erupted at a Pentagon request for 4,500 more troops on top of the 30,000 he agreed to send, saw his military commanders as attempting to force him into a decision he wasn't ready to make, and told Sen. Lindsey Graham:

...who asked if his deadline to begin withdrawal in July 2011 was firm. "I have to say that," Mr. Obama replied. "I can't let this be a war without end, and I can't lose the whole Democratic Party."

 So despite all the infighting, this portrayal doesn't make the White House look all bad. No one expects the answer in Afghanistan to be easy, and as passions arise over it on the president's team, it's clear that Obama takes the situation gravely.