EXCLUSIVE: Bob Woodward to Diane Sawyer: 'This Is Obama's War'

Author says President Obama is Afghanistan "strategist-in-chief."

September 24, 2010, 12:26 PM

Sept. 27, 2010— -- President Obama grew so frustrated with his own administration's deliberations over the war in Afghanistan that he wound up writing his own strategy, dictating a six-page, single-spaced "terms sheet" that sought to define the military mission and prevent his commanders from further escalating the war, according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward.

The episode, as recounted by Woodward in "Obama's Wars," came toward the end of a months-long strategy review that resulted in the president's decision to order a surge of 30,000 additional troops late last year -- 10,000 fewer than what top military leaders had been strongly pushing -- with a withdrawal date of July 2011.

The president had all his top aides sign off on the strategy, devised despite the military's push to keep the troop commitment more open-ended. But that didn't put an end to divisions that continue to linger inside the White House, Woodward told ABC's Diane Sawyer in his first interview on the new book.

"He said, 'I want everyone to look me in the eye and tell me they'll go along with this.' And he pushes them," Woodward said in the interview, the first portions of which will air on ABC's "World News" tonight.

"So he gets everyone to go along. But going along is not conviction. And that is part of the dilemma here for Barack Obama. He designed this."

Woodward continued: "If it turns out [that in] July of next year, nine months away, things are much better in Afghanistan, it seems to be working -- he's going to be a geo-strategic genius. If it doesn't work, you've got all kinds of people -- generals, Republicans, Democrats -- who are going to say, 'Wait a minute….'"

"This is Obama's war. He really became the strategist-in-chief."

Watch Diane Sawyer's interview with Bob Woodward tonight on "World News" at 6:30 p.m. ET and more on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

The book depicts a president and a White House engaged in an ongoing power struggle with military commanders that started virtually as soon as the president took office, with personal slights and grudges coloring a long series of tense discussions.

And Obama appears sobered by the barrage of threats the nation is facing. In a 75-minute, on-the-record interview in the Oval Office in early July – conducted as Woodward was finishing his book – Obama laid out the threats in unusually stark terms that have already drawn criticism from the right.

"We can absorb a terrorist attack," Obama told Woodward. "We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever that ever took place on our soil, we absorbed it and we are stronger. This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient."

Bob Woodward on 'Obama's War'

Obama told Woodward that he had said similar things in the past, as a presidential candidate and as president. But Woodward said that doesn't appear to be the case, a fact later confirmed by the White House.

"For the president of the United States to say 'we can absorb a terrorist attack' -- somewhat like the head of a Wall Street firm saying, you know, we can absorb another financial crisis -- it's realistic. I think we can," Woodward told Sawyer.

"I suspect consciously, unconsciously, he's laying the groundwork for telling the people we can absorb it, we'll try to prevent it, we're strong, we got over 9/11. But it's not a world of zero defects."

The president is particularly concerned about the potential for a nuclear weapon being detonated in a major American city. Woodward reports on a secret war game where officials pretend that terrorists had just blown up a nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and are said to be plotting against Los Angeles next; administration officials appear shaken by the exercise and the lack of preparation for its fallout.

Obama told Woodward that a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist is a "potential game-changer" that he ponders constantly: "When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that's one area where you can't afford any mistakes," Obama said.

Much of the book focuses on the drawn-out internal deliberations about Afghanistan policy, including some 40 private conversations between Obama and top aides, and more than 20 closed-door strategy sessions.

"There's this kind of hot-house of action. And one of the things you find is, Obama drives them," Woodward said in the interview. "'I want answers. What about this, what about that?' And it's not exactly a relaxing job for him or for the people who work there."

The debate is rigorous and, at times, personal. National Security Adviser James Jones, a retired Marine general who joined the administration from outside the Obama inner circle, dismisses the president's political aides as "the water bugs" and the "campaign set," Woodward writes.

Gen. David Petraeus, who was among those calling for a larger troop presence, calls senior White House adviser David Axelrod "a complete spin doctor." Axelrod voices mistrust for Hillary Rodham Clinton from the time president-elect Obama told him he was considering choosing her for secretary of state.

And Vice President Joe Biden is quoted as calling Richard Holbrooke, the president's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, "the most egotistical bastard I've ever met."

Bob Woodward on 'Obama's War'

On just the president's fourth day in office, Petraeus -- who then headed U.S. Central Command, giving him oversight of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- outlined his recommendations for the Afghanistan conflict.

Petraeus then announced that he was set to move forward with an order for 30,000 new troops, despite the fact the president hadn't signed off on that and had even left the room.

"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,'" Woodward told Sawyer.

Watch Diane Sawyer's interview with Bob Woodward tonight on "World News" at 6:30 p.m. ET and more on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

The book shows Obama's focus turning increasingly to Pakistan, even as his administration's military efforts continue to be directed at Afghanistan. Woodward reveals the existence -- since confirmed by ABC News -- of a secret, 3,000-member CIA-controlled paramilitary army that's conducting operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Woodward said the president was told of deep problems in the US relationship with Pakistan in his very first intelligence briefing -- "a cold shower" that came just days after his triumphant victory in the 2008 presidential election.

"Imagine the high of being elected on that Tuesday and they come in two days later and say, by the way, here's -- here are the secrets, and one of the secrets is Pakistan," Woodward said. "We're attacking with a top-secret, covert operation, the safe havens in Pakistan, but Pakistan is living a lie. And this is a theme throughout the whole Obama presidency: 'How do you get control of Pakistan?' "

Potentially more troubling to the administration is the revelation that, according to US intelligence reports, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been diagnosed as manic-depressive, and is described as being "off his meds," Woodward's book reports.

"The intel agencies believe it at the highest level, and with the most graphic detail. And the intelligence shows that sometimes he's delusional, sometimes, as our ambassador [Karl Eikenberry] reports to Joe Biden last spring, 'Karzai's [sometimes] on his meds, off his meds,'" Woodward said in the interview.

Across the border in Pakistan, Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari is depicted as quietly providing help to U.S. enemies, with the CIA suspecting that its intelligence was compromised by his government.

"You can't keep playing one side against the other," Biden warns Zardari, according to Woodward's book.

For his part, Zardari expresses frustration that Americans are too concerned about civilian casualties. Woodward reports that Zardari told then-CIA Director Michael Hayden that his poll numbers were high enough to weather blowback from casualties.

"Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me," Zardari told Hayden, Woodward writes.

Obama and his aides were also frustrated to learn that the Bush administration had let its planning for potential hotspots such as Yemen, Somalia, and Iran -- not to mention strategy in Afghanistan -- fall into disrepair, Woodward reports.

"One of the real surprises is that the Obama people found that President Bush lost his appetite for contingency planning," he said.

After he took office and commenced the Afghanistan review, Obama himself grew frustrated by the fact that military leaders kept trying to push him in a direction of providing more troops, with a looser timeframe for withdrawal.

"At one of the meetings … he just says, 'I'm pissed,' " Woodward said. "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."

Among the other major revelations:

Woodward told Sawyer he focused on the subject of war because "it's defining" for a president – particularly this president.

"The wars are going to go down with his name on it," Woodward said.

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