Insider' account

Published : Nov 19, 2010 00:00 IST

Woodward's insights into U.S.-Pakistan relations and disclosures on the U.S. thinking on India-Pakistan relations make this a valuable book.

THIS is a book about President Barack Obama as Commander-in-Chief saddled with a war in Afghanistan launched by his predecessor George W. Bush, which he cannot win, and besieged by a vicious Republican opposition, which has scant use for bipartisanship. It is sworn to deny him a second term.

The book is the latest in a series that began with Bush at War in 2002 and was followed by Plan of Attack in the following year; both were a public relations job by an insider who had unrivalled access to insiders. In State of Denial (2006) sourness crept in, a note that was prominent in The War Within: A Secret History 2006-2008; all were published by the same publishers, Simon & Schuster. By then the Bush White House had become a viper's nest. The inmates knew that their future was bleak, their failures were egregious and their ranking in public esteem was low. Dissensions crippled the administration.

This book carries on the same tradition and the same style of reportage. But its celebrated author had come to acquire a certain repute. Michael Tomasky wrote of him in The Guardian recently: The most famous journalist in the world. Who can possibly resist when he comes a-knocking? Some do, and it is said by Woodward's naysayers that he exacts his revenge. Those who cooperate are shown in a positive light; those who don't are typically the bumblers who messed everything up. The rude would call it blackmail.

Rich details, old plot

In his review of The War Within in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani pointed out that for all the rich details, the outlines were familiar to careful readers of newspapers. He noted the glaring contrast between the portrait of Bush in the last book and that in the first which depicted the President in Rovian terms as a strong, resolute, even visionary leader. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, had an unsavoury reputation. He was closer to Vice-President Dick Cheney. What emerged unfailingly from the exposes was Bush's encouragement of flattery. National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley told him, You've got great instincts. If I could urge you to do one thing it would be Trust your instincts'. This, to an uneducated man who was badly in need of some education. None cared to speak the truth to him.

It was left to Frank Rich to rip Woodward apart in the International Herald Tribune (December 5, 2005). Woodward took more than two years to tell his editor that he had his own Deep Throat in the Wilson affair. Joseph C. Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, was in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Her cover was blown maliciously and in breach of the law because Joseph Wilson, a former Ambassador who was sent to Africa in mid-2002 to see if Iraq had tried to get uranium from Niger, found no evidence of such an attempt, which was contrary to the famous assertion by Bush in his State of the Union address before launching the war: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. On July 6, 2003, Wilson wrote in The New York Times that it was highly doubtful that any deal with Niger had been concluded.

Eight days later, Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist, blew Valerie Plame's cover citing two senior administrative officials. A special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, began investigations into how the fact was revealed, in breach of the law. Cheney's Chief of Staff Lewis Scooter Libby was indicted. Joseph Wilson had reported in 2002.

Yet, on the eve of the indictment, Woodward told Larry King Live on CNN: I don't know how this is about the build-up to the war, the Valerie Plame Wilson issue. If he and Carl Bernstein had adopted the same attitude on that third-rate burglary, Watergate would not have been exposed. The inventor of inside exposes, Theodore H. White, had missed Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were young outsiders who did not suspend disbelief. Indeed, Plan of Attack ignored the disinformation campaign in the build-up for the aggression on Iraq.

Passive notion of journalistic neutrality

Frank Rich recorded how Joan Didion's take on Woodward for The New York Review of Books in 1996 was among the first to point out that Woodward's passive notion of journalistic neutrality is easily manipulated by his sources. He flatters those who give him the most access by upholding their version of events. Hence Mary Matalin, the former Cheney flack who helped shape WHIG's [White House Iraq Group] war propaganda, rushed to defend Woodward last week. Asked by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post why an administration not known for being fond of the press put so much effort into cooperating with Woodward', Matalin responded that he does an extraordinary job' and that it's in the White House's interest to have a neutral source writing the history of the way Bush makes decisions'

Indeed it's reporters who didn't have top level access to the likes of Bush and Cheney who have gotten the Iraq story right. In the new book Feet to the Fire: The Media after 9/11, Kristina Borjesson interviews some of them, including Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder, who heard early on from a low-level source that the vice president is lying' and produced a story headlined Lack of Hard Evidence of Iraqi Weapons Worries Top U.S. officials' on 6 September 2002. That was two days before administration officials fanned out on the Sunday-morning talk shows to point ominously at the now-discredited front-page New York Times story about Saddam's aluminium tubes. Warren Strobel, a frequent reportorial collaborator with Landay at Knight Ridder, tells Borjesson, The most surprising thing to us was we had the field to ourselves for so long in terms of writing stuff that was critical or questioning the administration's case for war.'

Lesson for the Indian press

In this there is a lesson for the press in India as well. The celebrity journalist has no stomach for independent, vigorous dissent, which is the hallmark of a truly free press. But relish and reflect on Woodward's disclosures. He has already drawn blood in a short time by exposing the deep tensions inside Obama's national security team. National Security Adviser General James Jones resigned. He could hardly continue in office after the disclosure that he had a poor opinion of Obama's inner circle of political advisers. Politburo and the Mafia were among the praises he lavished on them. Not one of the persons around Obama emerges in a flattering light from Woodward's account.

Some circles in Islamabad are squirming with embarrassment at his deadly disclosures. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is portrayed as a neurotic who is hooked on drugs. David M. Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, has a poor opinion of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. How could you trust Hillary? he asked the President.

Nobody likes or respects Richard C. Holbrooke, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and rightly so.

Trivia abound in this as they do in all such American inside accounts. Holbrooke asked Obama to call him Richard, not Dick, for my wife's sake. Obama complied and circulated the request. Holbrooke was horrified. Obama clearly did not respect this overbearing understudy.

It is no secret that Holbrooke wanted India to be included in his remit. It speaks highly for the maturity of Indian officials that they put him in his place without crowing about it. Holbrooke had said in his theatric baritone I will deal with India by pretending not to deal with India'. He was gently but firmly shown his place in New Delhi.

The CIA paramilitary teams have an ultra-secret presence on the ground in Pakistan. Which means that despite all the evidence of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or its rogue elements' complicity in the attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and on India itself, large extracts of which the newspapers have already reported, there is a point beyond which the United States will not press Pakistan despite the fact that the evidence mounts by the day. In a few days' time, 26/11 will be two years old.

The U.S.' central concern is how to leave Afghanistan without undue loss of face. It is aware of the fact that India thinks that the United States was filled with closet Pakistani lovers.

Insights and disclosures

Woodward writes: In many ways, the Pakistani military had vastly more authority over the direction and fate of the country than its historically weak civilian leadership. The U.S. had to work with the Army chief, General Pervez Kayani, out of necessity. He had the most power in that country.

It is insights like this and disclosures on American thinking about Pakistan and India-Pakistan relations that make this book indispensable to every serious student of the subject. All the more so since President Obama will be in India in a matter of days.

In October 2009, Obama gathered his team for a three-hour discussion on Pakistan. The President relied on Dr Peter R. Lavoy, the deputy for analysis in the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). He speaks Hindi, Urdu and French, and is the DNI's top authority on Pakistan. He figures in discussions on Pakistan recorded in the book:

The consensus inside the intelligence community was that Afghanistan would not get straightened out until there was a stable relationship between Pakistan and India. A more mature and less combustible relationship between the two longtime adversaries was more important than building Afghanistan, Lavoy said.

Lavoy revisited the Bush years. We had engaged Musharraf as though he was Pakistan, which he was. But with Musharraf out of office and living in London, the U.S. still had not done enough to build relations with other political entities. Deep Pakistani mistrust of American intentions persisted.

Mullen [Admiral Michael Glenn Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] pointed out that the robust military-to-military programs with Pakistan had grown to nearly $2 billion a year for training, equipment and other enterprises. Relations were getting better. The admiral was spending a lot of time with General Kayani, improving trust between the countries

The President returned to India. We need to move aggressively on India-Pakistan issues in order to try to reduce the tension between the two countries.' Secretary Clinton addressed the consequences of not engaging with the Pakistani public for the past several years, contributing to America's unpopularity there. There hadn't been much public diplomacy in recent years,' she said. The history of the United States abandoning the region after the Cold War still hung over everything.

Meanwhile, the U.S. relationship with India is growing steadily', she said, which, to say the least, was characterised as a negative in Pakistan. When the Pakistani media ran negative stories, there was not enough pushback. Where was a counter-propaganda plan?' she asked

The session was grinding to a halt. Obama read through a list of specific questions about how to convince Pakistan that it was in their interest to change. There's no clear answer yet with regard to what induces Pakistan to make a strategic shift in our direction,' he said. Why can't we have straightforward talks with India on why a stable Pakistan is crucial?' Obama asked. India is moving toward a higher place in its global posture. A stable Pakistan would help that.

Among his other questions were: Would the addition of U.S. troops in Afghanistan make Pakistan more or less cooperative? Because of Pakistani corruption, is there a way to funnel U.S. aid directly to the people for whom it's intended? Speaking by video, Ambassador Anne Patterson tried to address the aid question. We need to give Pakistanis some control over projects, although mobilising the civilian sector would be a good thing to do.' Obama ended by saying he wanted to improve the U.S. image in Pakistan.

It is unlikely that President Barack Obama has changed his views in a year's time. Indeed, Mark Landler and Eric Schmitts' report in the International Herald Tribune of October 20 suggests a yet closer U.S.-Pakistan relationship:

As Pakistani civilian and military leaders arrive here this week for high-level meetings, the Obama administration will begin trying to mend a relationship badly damaged by the U.S. military's tough new stance in the region.

Among the sweeteners on the table will be a multiyear security pact with Pakistan, complete with more reliable military aid something the Pakistani military has long sought to complement the five-year, $7.5 billion package of non-military aid approved by the U.S, Congress last year (emphasis added).

India must reckon with these realities.
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