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In Woodward book on debate over Afghanistan war, was Obama audacious?

Excepts from the Woodward book on Obama's decisions on the Afghanistan war reveal the qualities of mind in the president. How do those fare against recommendations of the great historian of war, Carl Von Clausewitz?

By Clayton Jones / September 22, 2010

US soldiers in Afghanistan laugh at the yellow flowers they attached to their helmets during a joint patrol with Afghan troops in Kandahar last month.

TOPSHOTS/AFP PHOTO/Yuri CORTEZ/NEWSCOM

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Excerpts from Bob Woodward’s new book, “Obama’s Wars,” reveal a President Obama and his security team arguing in 2009 over a new strategy in the Afghanistan war. My first impression after reading these insider comments was this: Why wasn’t this debate more public?

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If Congress is the branch of government that declares war (and guides it), why weren’t lawmakers more involved in forming this new strategy? The answer may lie in the 20th-century drift to give the American commander-in-chief more authority in war.

In the end, Mr. Obama rejected the military’s request for a surge of 40,000 troops and went for 30,000. And he set a date of July 2011 for the start of a troop drawdown. Perhaps that was the smart move in terms of domestic politics. More than 100 Democrats in the House voted against their president’s request for funding the war.

The ultimate touchstone for judging a war decision remains Carl Von Clausewitz, the 19th-century German war theorist. (He is most well known for saying that war is politics “by other means.”)

Clausewitz’s study of the history of war – he was involved in defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo – remains the standard in military schools. In his “Principles of War” essay, he writes that a war leader can prevail by remaining calm and firm while making decisions based on reason. Without those qualities, he wrote, “the most brilliant qualities of mind are wasted.”

Still, he advises one other critical quality:

In any specific action, in any measure we may undertake, we always have the choice between the most audacious and the most careful solution. Some people think that the theory of war always advises the latter. That assumption is false. If the theory does advise anything, it is the nature of war to advise the most decisive, that is, the most audacious.

Make your choice, therefore, according to this inner force; but never forget that no military leader has ever become great without audacity.

History will tell whether Obama has been audacious enough in Afghanistan. That quality is not unfamiliar to him – his most famous book is "The Audacity of Hope."

The Woodward book is only the first draft of that war's history. The final draft is still being written – in the hills of Afghanistan.

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