Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is senior editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the new book “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
Around the fifth anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, in late spring of 2016, President Barack Obama did an interview with CNN. Obama was seated at the head of the long conference room table in the White House Situation Room and after I asked the President a number of questions about his decision to authorize that operation, I changed direction. I asked: “Donald Trump. What are your thoughts, if he was to be sitting in this chair, about how he would be handling these decisions?”
Obama replied, “Well, I don’t have those thoughts. Because I don’t expect that to happen.”
Trump wasn’t yet his party’s official nominee, and even after he was, a lot of folks didn’t expect that to happen. And then, of course, it did.
Trump hangs over Obama’s moving, beautifully written memoir of his first three years in office like an onrushing train that both the reader and author know is hurtling down the tracks to collide with what Obama hoped to achieve. In Obama’s own words, he was striving to “see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed” and to continue the work-in-progress of making a more perfect, racially equitable “promised land” that has already produced “Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers…Jackie Robinson…Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday…Lincoln at Gettysburg.”
“A Promised Land,” a copy of which was obtained by CNN, is a tome of more than 700 pages that covers Obama’s early political career as Illinois state senator, time as a junior US senator and his at-first seemingly quixotic run for the presidency – where he faced Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and then Sen. John McCain in the general election.
Obama describes Sarah Palin, McCain’s 2008 running mate, as a sort of proto-Trump who publicly accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” Meanwhile, Palin presented herself as a “real American” yet “on just about every subject relevant to governing the country she had absolutely no idea what she was talking about…like a kid trying to bluff her way through a test for which she had failed to study.” Obama goes on to note that Palin’s “incoherence didn’t matter to the vast majority of Republicans…a sign of things to come.”
Indeed. It was, of course, Trump who put into play repeatedly the lie – concocted to try to invalidate Obama’s presidency – that he wasn’t American, wasn’t born in the US (and might even be a secret Muslim). As Obama explains of Trump, “For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”
The cost of politics
Obama is clear-eyed about the toll that his political career has taken on his family. His mother died of cancer in 1995 and he was not at her bedside in Hawaii because he was running for Illinois state senate. Obama writes, “me not there, so busy with my grand pursuits. I know could never get that moment back. On top of my sorrow, I felt great shame.”
His love story with and marriage to his wife Michelle gets “strained” by the demands of his career and the arrival of their two children, Sasha and Malia. When Obama lost his race for a US House seat in Illinois in a landslide in 2000 Michelle asked him, “Is it worth it?’ Obama writes, “I couldn’t admit to her I was no longer sure.”
Obama also emphasizes the role that luck played in his career. During his run for US Senate in Illinois in 2004 his Republican opponent Jack Ryan dropped out of the race when his ex-wife revealed that he had “pressured her to visit sex clubs and tried to coerce her into having sex in front of strangers.” Then the Republican Party, as Obama put it, “bafflingly recruited conservative firebrand Alan Keyes” who was from Maryland – to oppose him. Obama beat Keyes by over 40 points.
But as Seneca wisely observed, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – and Obama obviously is very good at creating his own luck. Raised by a single mother who was often traveling because of her work in international development and by his grandparents, he ascended to the most important job in the world at the relatively young age of 47 by dint of seizing the chances that came his way, such as being the first Black president of Harvard Law Review – his first brush with national attention.
“Osama bin Laden dead, General Motors Alive”
“A Promised Land” chronicles the early period of Obama’s presidency that then-vice president Joe Biden characterized as “Osama bin Laden Dead, General Motors Alive,” when Obama and his economic team helped to pull the US out of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Obama also recounts the passage of his signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – that gave 20 million Americans health insurance and which has survived almost all of the efforts of the Trump administration to undo it, including a challenge this week at the US Supreme Court that seems to have fizzled. Turns out that even most of the conservative judges on the highest court in the land are quite loath to undo popular pieces of actual legislation, while the Trump administration has never produced any real plan to “repeal and replace” Obamacare in the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century.
Was the Obama economic stimulus too small to quickly pull the US out of the Great Recession? Did Obamacare significantly raise insurance prices for already-insured Americans? I will leave it to others more expert in these issues to answer and gauge how Obama himself represents them on the page. Instead, I will focus on the two related national security decisions, the most important of Obama’s first term: to “surge” tens of thousands of US troops into Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban were significantly strengthening and to authorize the operation that killed bin Laden.
Obama the wartime President
Obama arrived on the national stage as a candidate who had opposed the Iraq War but never had to vote on it, unlike his opponents Senators Clinton and McCain, who stood behind it in Congress. Yet, Obama was more comfortable with the use of American military force than either many of his fans or his detractors had pegged him. When in October 2002 Obama spoke at an anti-war rally in Chicago he said, “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”
Five years later when Obama was running for president he said he would take a shot at bin Laden if the Pakistani government was unable or unwilling to do so, which led both Joe Biden (who then opposed him for the nomination) and John McCain to castigate him as “not ready to be president” because at the time Pakistan was regarded as a staunch ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, which was really only partly true.
When Obama unexpectedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, his acceptance speech was largely a defense of “just war” theory, making him likely the first recipient of the Peace Prize to use his acceptance speech to defend necessary wars.
Obama ran on the idea that Iraq was a distraction from the “good war” being fought in Afghanistan. When he came into office the Taliban were resurging dramatically and so the first major national security decision he had to make was what to do about the Afghan War.
An additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan
The new US commander in Afghanistan was Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal who had turned Joint Special Operations Command into a superlative warfighting machine. Obama – who draws wonderful, quick portraits of the characters in this book – writes of McChrystal, “the man was all muscle, sinew and bone, with a long angular face and piercing avian gaze.”
McChrystal and his team compiled a secret assessment of the war which made the point that the war was going badly and asserted that this could only be remedied by a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy that would require at least 40,000 more US troops on top of the more than 50,000 troops already in country.
As is the Washington way, the assessment quickly leaked to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post who wrote a story headlined “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure.’”
Obama was furious, summoning Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, for a dressing down in the Oval Office, telling them he wanted “to stop having my military advisers telling me what I have to do on the front page of the morning paper.”
In the end Obama authorized an additional 30,000 troops but set “a timetable of eighteen months to start bringing them home,” a policy that Obama announced at West Point on December 1, 2009.
Frayed relations with the US military
The announcement of the withdrawal date was too clever by half since it undercut the Afghan government and also morale among many Afghan who interpreted it as an American rush to the exits, while it bolstered the Taliban and those in Pakistan’s security apparatus who were supporting them.
Obama’s relations with the military frayed further when Rolling Stone ran a story in June 2010 featuring unflattering anonymous comments about Obama’s war cabinet attributed to McChrystal’s staff. Obama angrily told Gates that McChrystal “got played” by Rolling Stone.
After 24 hours of deliberation, Obama decided that he couldn’t keep McChrystal on because in his view the episode underlined the “air of impunity that seemed to have taken hold among some of the military’s top ranks during the Bush years; a sense that when the war began, those who fought it shouldn’t be questioned.” For Obama this undercut the bedrock principle of civilian control of the military; after all he was the commander in chief.
McChrystal flew back to Washington to meet with Obama and offered his resignation, which the President accepted. Obama, who admired McChrystal’s smarts and work ethic, told an aide afterwards, “I liked Stan.”
The decision that could have cost Obama a second term
And it was to Joint Special Operations Command, which McChrystal had transformed from doing a few raids a month to hundreds of raids a month during the five years that he commanded the secretive unit, that Obama turned the following year when he made the riskiest play of his presidency: the operation to bring bin Laden to justice. Obama writes, “I was likely to end up a one-term president if I got it wrong.”
During the final White House meeting on April 28, 2011 to discuss whether to launch a Special Operations raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan where bin Laden was possibly hiding, Obama says Gates advised against the raid – citing Desert One, the botched mission to rescue the US hostages held in Iran in 1980.
As Obama writes, Biden also advised against the raid option, “given the enormous consequences of failure.” Biden has since said that he didn’t advise Obama against the raid. If that’s the case it’s quite strange that Obama doesn’t mention in it in his book.
Obama heard out his war cabinet and went to his residence to make the final decision. Obama had great confidence in Bill McRaven, McChrystal’s successor as the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, who was overseeing the operation, and ultimately, the fact that it was a 50-50 call if bin Laden was even at the compound in Pakistan still made it the best bet to find al-Qaeda’s leader since he had disappeared in the months after 9/11.
Of course, the operation was a success. This is where Obama leaves us at the end of his first of two planned volumes about his presidency.
We will have to wait for Obama’s next volume, which will surely likely describe other key national security and military decisions: the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement; the choice not to enforce the “red line” against the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people in 2013; the 2011 removal of US troops from Iraq and the decision to send them back into Iraq three years later after ISIS had taken over much of the country, and the 2011 US drone strike that killed an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who had risen to become a leader of al Qaeda in Yemen.
That will surely be another very compelling book, Mr. President.