When President Obama named Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state soon after winning the election, Washington pundits and press cheered the incoming president for his willingness to put together a “team of rivals.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of the famous book of the same name about Abraham Lincoln’s staff, seemed to become the management thinker of the moment, quoted widely about the developing cabinet and its odd coupling.
But what was once talked about as an asset is in danger of becoming a liability. Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars chronicles the infighting that has occurred between the White House and the Pentagon over Afghanistan, as a president frustrated by a war he wants to find a way of ending confronts military commanders determined to escalate and continue it.
Without having read the book–it will be released Sept. 27–it is hard to judge whether the tensions and disagreements Woodward lays out are particularly virulent or simply par for the course for any high-stakes leadership team. After all, there is no greater pressure-cooker than the U.S. executive branch in the midst of two wars, a terrible economic recession and a political landscape more toxic than anything seen in decades. If there were no dust-ups or disagreements, we’d need to check everybody’s pulse.
Despite some personal attacks–national security adviser Jim Jones calls Obama’s aides “the Mafia” and “the Politboro,” and Petraeus calls David Axelrod “a complete spin doctor”–much of the internal debate appears to be substantive in nature, writes Washington Post associate editor Steve Luxenberg, who has read the book and wrote the Post’s news story on the topic. “I came away with the impression that the strategy sessions on the Afghanistan war … were serious discussions about difficult issues,” he wrote in a Q&A with Post readers, adding “I hope no one read my news story as an account of a dysfunctional process. That’s not my sense of [it].”