TRANSCRIPT: Bob Woodward Talks to ABC's Diane Sawyer About 'Obama's Wars'

Read the transcript of Diane Sawyer's interview with Bob Woodward.

ByABC News
September 27, 2010, 12:26 PM

Sept. 27, 2010— -- ABC's Diane Sawyer spoke with author Bob Woodward about his new book, "Obama's Wars" in an interview that first aired on "World News" on September 27, 2010. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: "Obama's Wars." Is President Obama going to like this book?

BOB WOODWARD, AUTHOR, "OBAMA'S WARS": Don't know. People are going to read it very differently because it's so intimate. It goes on for pages: this is exactly what he said, this is what the advisers said, this was the contradictions, this was the dilemma.

I suspect in the White House they're going to be shocked that somebody is so much into narrating their business in detail. They're used to controlling the message, this is what happened, rather than a simplified message.

SAWYER: You talked to 100 people, countless documents. You have details of some 40 meetings with the president and his advisers. Details of them.

Were people just eager to talk?

WOODWARD: I had the luxury of 18 months. And you go back and get a little piece, and then talk to other people and get a document.

Let me tell you a story. At the beginning of the project, one of the president's top advisers said to me when I said I want to do this book about the war, particularly Afghanistan, he said, "You're not going to find many Deep Throats around here." And by the end of the process, he was reading his own notes of the top-secret meetings.

SAWYER: What is your elixir? What is it – what is it you did, really, that got them to tell you these things?

WOODWARD: This is politically neutral. I'm not taking a position for or against the war or Obama. That this is really neutral inquiry.

SAWYER: Why "Obama's Wars"? Why not "Obama's Health Care"? Why not one of the other topics that will go down as with his stamp on it, his name on it?

WOODWARD: Well, the wars are going to go down with his name on it. The reason war is not like anything else -- health care, the economy -- vitally important, but we are defined as you travel around the world by our wars, who we decide to go to war with, how we wage that war. And perhaps in a more important way, I think we're defined to ourselves by who those wars are.

He also takes it seriously. He spends countless hours on it, and I think as the research here shows, it's a weight on his shoulders.

He writes a letter to the family of anyone who dies. And you can't do that week after week and not realize that this is not -- this is your choice, your war.

SAWYER: I guess there are people who think that some choices are so compelled, they're almost not choices anymore. Did he have choices when he came in? Real choices?

WOODWARD: Well, the war was going on. He promised in the campaign he was going to devote more resources to it.

But one of the things you find in looking at this meeting by meeting, memo by memo, is that the military had their idea of what they wanted to do. Forty thousand more troops last year. And they were, like I put it, five blocks of granite: Hillary Clinton; Secretary of Defense Gates; Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Petraeus, who was then CENTCOM commander; and then General McChrystal.

They said 40,000, and the president pushed them in this most direct way -- I want options, you promised options. And he never got them.

SAWYER: Before I go, I want to go into all of these meetings -- before we do, just a personal question. Of all the things you learned, what surprised you the most? Surprised you the most?

WOODWARD: That in many ways, this is the Obama we don't know, when at one of the meetings right before he's deciding on the strategy to send 30,000 troops, he just says, without qualification, this has to be a plan for a handoff to the Afghanis, and for us to get out of Afghanistan, there can be no wiggle room.

That is his bedrock conclusion. He wants out.

SAWYER: The meetings -- you said Obama felt -- you're writing in a general way, too, but "Obama felt disrespected and trapped, and at different times he felt that the military was maneuvering around him."

Did they think they could take a young president?

WOODWARD: Some of them might have thought that, but what happened, there's a sequence last fall in which General Petraeus goes out and gives an interview and says, well, the only plan is counterinsurgency, this is the only way to do it. Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, says we probably need more troops. General McChrystal gives that speech in which he says no, this is the only way to do it.

So, you're the president, who's supposed to be the decider, who's supposed to have choice, and you've got these blocks of granite out there saying oh, no, you really don't have a choice. This is the way to do it. And he was not happy.

SAWYER: Do you think it was a concerted effort on their part to box him in before he had a chance to review it, to make a decision, to consider other options?

WOODWARD: No. I don't think it was a conspiracy. I think it came from conviction and belief that this is the way to do it.

And all of -- hanging over this is Vietnam, that the military wants to be independent, they want to be tough. They want to be in there saying we need more troops, we need enough troops to make sure that we are successful here.

So I think this is deeply felt. The political ramifications and the emotional ramifications for the president were stunning.

I mean, here he is, we're going to take a serious look at this, we're going to consider all options. The debate is open. There's all of these strategy sessions which I recount endlessly.

You see it's kind of the slate is blank. And before it really gets going or in the midst of it, they're out there saying oh, no, only one way.

SAWYER: Well, at one point he has, theoretically, four options, from 85,000 down to 20,000. The middle options are essentially 35 to 40,000. And he says is this an option? This is a choice?

WOODWARD: Yeah. And he's right.

They've given him small gradations. And he said, I've got 40,000 or nothing in terms of options. Then Secretary Gates gives him a secret memo saying, well, we can do a little less, but he really means we're going to postpone 5 or 10,000 until later. And literally -- I mean, think of this scene.

In the Situation Room of the White House, the president is saying, I want options, you're not giving them to me. And he says to Gates, this is unacceptable. And Gates says, you're entitled to that option. The president never got it.

SAWYER: I want just a few concrete details of the meetings which, again, are absorbing in their detail. But we now know what the Biden plan was. We now know what the vice president was doing.

You have to summarize it for me, but I gather it is maybe 20,000 troops with a concentration on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency -- Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan, and maybe 20,000 troops, but not more, because that way lies mission creep and that way lies Vietnam?

WOODWARD: Precisely. And right at -- there's such a dramatic moment before the president issues these secret orders to everyone in the administration about what his decision is. And Biden -- this is Thanksgiving -- he's off in Nantucket, and he says, "I want to come back and talk to you, Mr. President." And Obama says, "No, no. Don't."

And Biden shows up anyway.

SAWYER: A surprise?

WOODWARD: A surprise visit in the portico there at the White House Sunday.

SAWYER: Waiting, lying in and wait for him.

WOODWARD: Waiting and he knows that the president might get angry. In this case, the president starts kind of smiling and laughing, because that's Biden being Biden. Of course, you tell him not to come and he comes.

And Biden says, "If you don't stick to these specific orders, we're locked into Vietnam." And the president says, "I am not going to sign on to failure. I am not going to be like those other presidents and stick with it because of my ego, my politics, my political security."

Other words, Barack Obama says, I'm not going to be Lyndon Johnson. We have to have a plan. We're getting out. We're ending this war.

SAWYER: The portrait you paint of the way they arrive at the 2011 and the exit plan reminds me of the president -- and I'm just imagining this, but lying in wait until someone says something. And Secretary Gates advances an idea, and the president locks it in, and that's 2011. And the withdrawal begins?

WOODWARD: Well, in the course of these meetings, Secretary Gates says, look, in 18 to 24 months we need to start thinning out our forces. Obama lands on that and says, OK. That means 18 months from -- this is last December -- and so we're going to begin thinning out withdrawing July 2011.

Also, Gates writes this memo saying, well, we could do less than 40,000, maybe 30, maybe 35,000, but we'll get more later. Obama just lands on that with, you know, OK, that's what we're using.

And then before Thanksgiving he calls Gates in and he says, I've decided it's 30,000. And Gates is kind of, now, wait a minute. I've got these requests for specialists, intelligence specialists, medical evacuation teams and so forth, that might be another 4,500. And Obama says, "Bob, that's it. Thirty thousand."

And he's like an auctioneer -- I have closed the bidding. I've decided.

SAWYER: Throughout, you feel this impulse to -- you feel this constant erosion of his position. He says 30,000, it's slightly adjusted. It's as if he has to watch out constantly or his 2011 date is going to be slightly eroded, his 30,000 is going to be slightly eroded.

What is that about? Is he under constant -- is the tension going on eternally between a military pushing for more and a president digging him?

WOODWARD: I think there's a natural disconnect, but I think in this case it's not been settled. He's not --- He's issued these orders, he said we're going to do it this way. Very specific.

Six pages of written orders, unprecedented. And then the military is out saying, well, we want --- we need a little bit more, or we want to do this. General Petraeus is quoted saying privately that this is a war we're going to be fighting for the rest of our lives and all of our kids' lives.

SAWYER: And it's clear in your book the president is saying, basically, what don't you understand about --

WOODWARD: About no.

SAWYER: -- about no?

WOODWARD: Yeah. And this is the situation in the fall of 2010 we were in where it's not -- there's not a direct line.

I think the president has in his head what he wants to do. One of these meetings before Thanksgiving, and there's a, there's a great line talking about Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff. He said, "Nothing would make Rahm happier than if I said no to the 30,000," meaning within the White House political staff, there's tremendous pressure on the president to not do this.

SAWYER: He's visited on the eve of the decision again by two of his national security advisers who basically say again, you do not have to do this.

WOODWARD: There is a Saturday morning after Thanksgiving when he's essentially decided on 30,000, and it's kind of one of those meetings where he calls people who are around into the Oval Office, including General Lute, who is a sleeper figure in all of this, to say the least, somebody who is the three-star general who's in charge of Afghanistan through the National Security Council staff.

And the president opens the door and says, "What do you all think?" And one of the colonels says, "Well, you can't defy the military. You're going to have to do what they want."

General Lute then, in one of the most extraordinary interchanges in the White House I've ever heard about, says, "Mr. President, you don't have to do this," that this is not required. And "Let's look at the situation we're in right now."

SAWYER: And there are so many reasons that would worry anybody about the ability to succeed.


SAWYER: -- gambled right.

WOODWARD: He said there are four risks and said these risks are so great in terms of governing and Afghanistan and dealing with Karzai, as we now see unfolding with intense drama right now before our eyes, the issue of training the Afghan security force if they can take over, the issue of Pakistan, which is the X factor in all of this. And then international support, which is not as solid as it should be.

So, General Lute says to him, "All of these risks, they're not independent. They're cumulative. They make it worse and you move from a calculated risk to a gamble." You've got kind of one of the foremost experts saying, "You are taking a gamble, Mr. President."

Obama says, I think rather graciously, "I know that's hard for you to come in here and tell me that, but we are going to have to execute our heart out to make this work."

SAWYER: Yes. He basically says, thank you, I've decided. Done.

WOODWARD: Look, he --

SAWYER: So it's both sides?

WOODWARD: Yeah. And he --- there's a point after these meetings have been going on for about six or seven weeks where he's meeting with Gates and Secretary Clinton and General Jones, and a couple of others, and he just -- this is kind of -- you can see it's what he feels and what his conclusion is. He said, I'm not doing 10 years. I am not doing never-ending nation-building. I'm not going to spend a trillion dollars. He just --

You know, this is Obama wants exit. But he wants it with a certain kind of accommodation to the military.

SAWYER: But it seems, reading the book, how much that any of us knew -- how much firmer he is about 2011 and what that means. He has in his mind a cap? The military will not come back and ask for more? He has a cap?

WOODWARD: He has a cap. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mullen, finally told them at two of the meetings, when pressed by the president, Admiral Mullen said, "We will not come back and ask for more troops again." That's it.

SAWYER: What's the angriest he gets at the military?

WOODWARD: I think he --

SAWYER: General Petraeus. Anybody specifically? Admiral Mullen?

WOODWARD: I think he gets -- at one of the meetings, if I can quote indirectly, he just says, I'm pissed. And he is, because they keep coming back about details. And they're trying to push him in that direction, and he's pushing back.

SAWYER: However unhappy he is, his political team is not measured. You have scenes in which Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod are going directly and complaining.

WOODWARD: And very upset about the push from the military.

SAWYER: At one point Rahym says to him, "You can't do that. The president hasn't made that decision. I didn't hear him make that decision."

WOODWARD: Yes. I mean, that's fascinating. This is day three of the administration.

They have their first NSC meeting, National Security Council meeting on Afghanistan. And the president leaves early, and General Petraeus, who is the central commander at that point, says, OK, I'm going to move on sending more troops that we've requested. Rahm Emanuel steps in like a sledgehammer and says, "General, I know you're doing your job. Thank you, but I didn't hear the president make that decision."

SAWYER: But at another point when there are complaints about General Petraeus giving a speech, and the word had gone out, "Button down, everybody," and he gave a television interview anyway, the spokesman delivers the anger to him. And what does he say?