Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Talking with Bob Woodward as Party Lines Tighten

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on March 24th, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 24 mart 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

There is much more anger than hope, teetering than beaming in the US Capital these days. The party lines are drawing tighter, rhetoric is getting harsher and attacks are becoming viler. Despite all of Obama’s promises to change the old way of politics, an adverse weather seems to be brewing, to the concern of many.
The Center for National Policy, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, DC, recently organized a discussion about the roots of the cruel attacks by parties that are apparently sucking away all the goodwill that was supposed to be around by now. Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, pointed out at this discussion that so many of today’s policy issues are not artificial; on the contrary they are real and create divergence in American politics. The new administration has a mandate based on a great majority in the House, which has not been the case in America for a long time. Mann continued: “The Obama Administration is setting out new policies and changing the direction of the country with this mandate.” Hence the current political outlook is that this administration, headed by a very different president and the worse economic crises in decades is creating panic, a little in some people, and very much more in others. Nevertheless, whether one likes it or not, ballots are still the most fundamental part of democracy and it showed last November that they matter even today.
On the other hand, Obama’s promise to reach to the other side of the isle is clearly failing. Norman Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute, elaborated thus during the same discussion: “In Washington, DC, advisories became enemies now.” There is very little willingness from the Republicans to get involved with the current legislative process and their motive to stay aside makes new legislations even more discordant.
I participated, together with about two dozen people, in a casual meeting in Washington, DC, and listened to the iconic investigative reporter, writer and journalist Bob Woodward. As we all know, Mr. Woodward, together with Carl Bernstein, another Washington Post reporter, unearthed a series of cover-ups in the early 1970s which later came to be known as the Watergate Scandal that eventually led to the resignation of an American President, the first time in history.
Last September, Mr. Woodward published a book called The War Within, which talked about the era before the troop ‘surge’ in Iraq and how the decision-making process toiled within the White House. Though nobody wants to remember that phase anymore, Woodward, for almost 3 hours, guided us through those days in the West Wing, told us about the face-to-face interviews he conducted last summer with President Bush and his senior aides, hinted at some juicy incidents during the last 8 years of the Bush White House, a period that was legendary for its furtiveness.
During the series of interviews, Bush told Woodward that he never asked the opinions of his closest advisers, including the Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about going into the Iraq War. Woodward concluded that there were practically no “come to Jesus meetings” with these policy makers about the war decision because Bush said: “I already knew what they think about going into the war.” Woodward’s other interviews also concurred that during the same period Pentagon as well lacked strategic leadership. For instance, Pete Pace, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Woodward that he never doubted or second-guessed about invading Iraq. It is hard to believe that even the uppermost military leadership asked no solid questions prior to such a crucial decision.
After this extended conversation with Woodward, it became even more apparent that during the Bush era the decision mechanisms did not work properly: the intelligence agencies reported what the senior administration officials wanted to hear, the military leadership neither asked the right questions, nor prepared after invasion plans, many senior officials weren’t part of the debate and the whole country was ready to kick some butts. During the conversation, Woodward himself also took part of the blame: “I did some reporting and claimed that the reasons were too weak for going into war, though I didn’t push as much as I was supposed to.”
Clive Crook of Financial Times recently argued: “Mr. Obama’s effort to fold the wider agenda of healthcare reform, new investment in education and a tax on carbon emissions into the short-term plans for addressing the economic crisis is not at all convincing.” But these matters should be separated. It seems that Obama utilizes the economic crisis much like Bush treated 9/11: using the period to do things that you cannot do in other times. A former presidential appointee official recently described the present situation to me as ‘every decision Obama administration takes looks like a gamble.’
Woodward says that it is almost impossible to attribute any tough challenge or objection to the superiors in Washington, DC. People see many issues as ‘above their pay grade’ and are unwilling to get involved with a decision making process “to keep their nose clean.” This was the case pre and during the Iraq War, and that is the case today for many critical decisions regarding the economic crisis and the Afghanistan war. The administration and the legislatures once more are caught in extraordinary times and are abiding the orders without reservations or second-guessing. Example, the humongous stimulus packages debate at the Capitol Hill that many American lawmakers signed the bill without knowing most of its clauses and specifics, while the Republicans acted like they ‘didn’t want to play the game.’
Every indication in the US Capital shows that the Afghanistan war will be Obama’s learning experience, much like the Iraq war was Bush’s. Woodward asks: how was it possible that Obama so quickly made a decision to send 17,000 troops to Afghanistan? When and how did he reach this conclusion? Was there a real debating process? Voices in the room, some of whom can know the policy that takes shape behind closed doors, supported Woodward and agreed that there is indeed no grand strategy in Afghanistan today and nobody knows what the end goal is.
The American way of governing best appears when it relies on its famous checks and balances: constant push-and-pull between the three branches of the government and especially not trusting the executive one. Today, many are looking back to the post-9/11 period and wishing that there should have been more of skepticism and tough debate before taking many serious decisions, which would affect the whole world in the years to come. The hope is that at least this time around America will remember the checks and balances bestowed upon by their founding fathers are as the best way to govern. If they really want to make sure and double check on how precious this gift is, they should study Turkey, a country that president Obama will soon be visiting. Surely there can be found many lessons of what happens when there are no checks and balances in the system of governing.

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