With the Iraq war spinning out of control in mid-2005, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones spoke with his old friend Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jones, who is now Barack Obama's national security advisor, had been sounded out for the Joint Chiefs job but demurred. One reason: He felt that civilian leaders in Washington were warping the military planning process. "Military advice is being influenced on a political level," Jones warned Pace, according to Bob Woodward's book State of Denial. Jones's warning squared with other reports at the time that U.S. commanders in Iraq felt pressure to keep troop levels low. Faced with a growing Democratic onslaught, the Bush White House was all too determined to pretend that the war was under control.
Four years later, Jones visited U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan. As it happened, Jones was joined on his trip by Woodward, who reported in The Washington Post on July 1 that Jones had warned the commanders against requesting more manpower in the wake of President Obama's approval earlier this year of 21,000 more troops. According to Woodward, Jones cautioned that Obama would have a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" — or WTF (as in, "What the f—?")–moment were he to get such a request anytime soon. Jones was even more explicit in an interview with the McClatchy news service. When Obama originally increased troop levels, Jones said, military leaders had agreed that "there would be a year from the time the decision was made before they would ever come back and ask for any more."
Although other officials quickly disavowed Jones's remarks, it was clear that Jones had committed much the same sin that drove his disgust toward the Bushies. "There is pressure being brought to bear on generals," says a congressional aide who closely tracks Afghanistan policy. And, with the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan reportedly gearing up to request tens of thousands more troops this fall, it was an early sign that the Obama administration could fall prey to some of the politically driven mistakes that helped turn the Iraq war into a fiasco. Indeed, that's why recent commentary warning that Afghanistan could be to Obama what Vietnam was to Lyndon B. Johnson — a foreign quagmire that smothers a Democratic president's ambitious social agenda — may miss the point. The real danger for Barack Obama is not that he will follow in the footsteps of LBJ. It is that he will repeat the errors of George W. Bush.