BEFORE I WAS INAUGURATED, Denis McDonough, my senior campaign foreign policy staffer and soon-to-be head of strategic communications for the National Security Council, insisted that I carve out thirty minutes for what he considered a top-tier priority.

“We need to make sure you can deliver a proper salute.”

Denis himself had never served in the military, although there was an order to his movements, a deliberateness and focus, that made some people assume he had. Tall and angular, with a jutting jaw, deep-set eyes, and graying hair that made him appear older than his thirty-nine years, he’d grown up in the small town of Stillwater, Minnesota, one of eleven children in a working-class Irish Catholic family. After graduating from college, he’d traveled through Latin America and taught high school in Belize, gone back to get his master’s degree in international affairs, and worked for Tom Daschle, then the Democratic leader in the Senate. In 2007, we’d recruited Denis to serve as a foreign policy staffer in my Senate office, and over the course of the campaign Denis had assumed more and more responsibility—helping me prepare for debates, putting together briefing books, organizing every aspect of my preconvention foreign tour, and endlessly jousting with the traveling press corps.

Even in a team full of type A personalities, Denis stood out. He sweated the details; volunteered for the most difficult, thankless tasks; and could not be outworked: During the Iowa campaign, he spent what little spare time he had canvassing door-to-door, famously shoveling snow for folks after a particularly bad storm, hoping to win their commitment to caucus for me. The same disregard for his own physical well-being that had helped him make his college football team as an undersized strong safety could lead to problems—in the White House, I once had to order him to go home after learning that he’d worked twelve straight hours with a bout of the flu. I came to suspect a religious aspect to this intensity, and though an iconoclastic streak (as well as an adoration of his wife, Kari) led him to steer clear of the collar, he approached his work both as a form of service and as self-abnegation.

Now, as part of his good works here on earth, Denis had taken it upon himself to get me ready for my first day as commander in chief. On the eve of my inauguration, he invited two military guys—including Matt Flavin, a young navy veteran who would serve as my White House veterans affairs staffer—to the transition office to put me through my paces. They started by showing me a bunch of photos of previous presidential salutes that did not make the grade—weak wrists, curled fingers, George W. Bush trying to salute while carrying his dog under his arm. They then evaluated my own form, which was apparently not stellar.

“Elbow a little farther out, sir,” said one.

“Fingers tighter, sir,” said the other. “The tips should be right at your eyebrow.”

After twenty minutes or so, though, my tutors seemed satisfied. Once they’d left, I turned to Denis.

“Anything else you’re nervous about?” I teased.

Denis shook his head unconvincingly. “Not nervous, Mr. President-Elect. Just want us to be prepared.”

“For what?”

Denis smiled. “For everything.”

IT’S A TRUISM that a president’s single most important job is to keep the American people safe. Depending on your political predispositions and electoral mandate, you may have a burning desire to fix public education or restore prayer in schools, raise the minimum wage or break the power of public sector unions. But whether Republican or Democrat, the one thing every president must obsess over, the source of chronic, unrelenting tension that burrows deep inside you from the moment you’re elected, is the awareness that everybody is depending on you to protect them.

How you approach the task depends on how you define the threats that the country faces. What do we fear most? Is it the possibility of a Russian nuclear attack, or that a bureaucratic miscalculation or glitch in the software launches one of our warheads by mistake? Is it some fanatic blowing himself up on a subway, or the government, under the guise of protecting you from fanatics, tapping into your email account? Is it a gas shortage caused by disruptions to foreign oil supplies, or the oceans rising and the planet frying? Is it an immigrant family sneaking across a river in search of a better life, or a pandemic disease, incubated by poverty and a lack of public services in a poor country overseas, drifting invisibly into our homes?

For most of the twentieth century, for most Americans, the what and why of our national defense seemed pretty straightforward. We lived with the possibility of being attacked by another great power, or being drawn into a conflict between great powers, or having America’s vital interests—as defined by the wise men in Washington—threatened by some foreign actor. After World War II, there were the Soviets and the Communist Chinese and their (real or perceived) proxies, ostensibly intent on world domination and threatening our way of life. And then came terrorist attacks emanating from the Middle East, at first on the periphery of our vision, scary but manageable, until just months into a brand-new century, the sight of the Twin Towers crumbling to dust made our worst fears manifest.

I grew up with many of these fears imprinted on me. In Hawaii, I knew families who’d lost loved ones at Pearl Harbor. My grandfather, his brother, and my grandmother’s brother had all fought in World War II. I was raised believing that nuclear war was a very real possibility. In grade school, I watched coverage of Olympic athletes being slaughtered by masked men in Munich; in college, I listened to Ted Koppel marking the number of days Americans were being held hostage in Iran. Too young to have known the anguish of Vietnam firsthand, I had witnessed only the honor and restraint of our service members during the Gulf War, and like most Americans I viewed our military operations in Afghanistan after 9/11 as both necessary and just.

But another set of stories had also been etched into me—different though not contradictory—about what America meant to those living in the world beyond it, the symbolic power of a country built upon the ideals of freedom. I remember being seven or eight years old and sitting on the cool floor tiles of our house on the outskirts of Jakarta, proudly showing my friends a picture book of Honolulu with its high-rises and city lights and wide, paved roads. I would never forget the wonder in their faces as I answered their questions about life in America, explaining how everybody got to go to a school with plenty of books, and there were no beggars because most everyone had a job and enough to eat. Later, as a young man, I witnessed my mother’s impact as a contractor with organizations like USAID, helping women in remote Asian villages get access to credit, and the lasting gratitude those women felt that Americans an ocean away actually cared about their plight. When I first visited Kenya, I sat with newfound relatives who told me how much they admired American democracy and rule of law—a contrast, they said, to the tribalism and corruption that plagued their country.

Such moments taught me to see my country through the eyes of others. I was reminded of how lucky I was to be an American, to take none of those blessings for granted. I saw firsthand the power our example exerted on the hearts and minds of people around the world. But with that came a corollary lesson: an awareness of what we risked when our actions failed to live up to our image and our ideals, the anger and resentment this could breed, the damage that was done. When I heard Indonesians talk about the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in a coup—widely believed to have CIA backing—that had brought a military dictatorship to power in 1967, or listened to Latin American environmental activists detailing how U.S. companies were befouling their countryside, or commiserated with Indian American or Pakistani American friends as they chronicled the countless times that they’d been pulled aside for “random” searches at airports since 9/11, I felt America’s defenses weakening, saw chinks in the armor that I was sure over time made our country less safe.

That dual vision, as much as my skin color, distinguished me from previous presidents. For my supporters, it was a defining foreign policy strength, enabling me to amplify America’s influence around the world and anticipate problems that might arise from ill-considered policies. For my detractors, it was evidence of weakness, raising the possibility that I might hesitate to advance American interests because of a lack of conviction, or even divided loyalties. For some of my fellow citizens, it was far worse than that. Having the son of a black African with a Muslim name and socialist ideas ensconced in the White House with the full force of the U.S. government under his command was precisely the thing they wanted to be defended against.

AS FOR THE senior ranks of my national security team, they all considered themselves internationalists to one degree or another: They believed that American leadership was necessary to keep the world moving in a better direction, and that our influence came in many forms. Even the more liberal members of my team, like Denis, had no qualms about the use of “hard power” to go after terrorists and were scornful of leftist critics who made a living blaming the United States for every problem around the globe. Meanwhile, the most hawkish members of my team understood the importance of public diplomacy and considered the exercise of so-called soft power, like foreign aid and student exchange programs, to be essential ingredients in an effective U.S. foreign policy.

The question was one of emphasis. How much concern did we have for the people beyond our borders, and how much should we simply worry about our own citizens? How much was our fate actually tied to the fate of people abroad? To what extent should America bind itself to multilateral institutions like the United Nations, and to what extent should we go it alone in pursuit of our own interests? Should we align ourselves with authoritarian governments that help keep a lid on possible chaos—or was the smarter long-term play to champion the forces of democratic reform?

How members of my administration lined up on these issues wasn’t always predictable. But in our internal debates, I could detect a certain generational divide. With the exception of Susan Rice, my youthful U.N. ambassador, all of my national security principals—Secretaries Gates and Clinton, CIA director Leon Panetta, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as my national security advisor, Jim Jones, and my director of national intelligence, Denny Blair—had come of age during the height of the Cold War and had spent decades as part of Washington’s national security establishment: a dense, interlocking network of current and former White House policy makers, congressional staffers, academics, heads of think tanks, Pentagon brass, newspaper columnists, military contractors, and lobbyists. For them, a responsible foreign policy meant continuity, predictability, and an unwillingness to stray too far from conventional wisdom. It was this impulse that had led most of them to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq; and if the resulting disaster had forced them to reconsider that particular decision, they were still not inclined to ask whether the bipartisan rush into Iraq indicated the need for a fundamental overhaul of America’s national security framework.

The younger members of my national security team, including most of the NSC staff, had different ideas. No less patriotic than their bosses, seared by both the horrors of 9/11 and the images of Iraqi prisoners abused by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib, many of them had gravitated to my campaign precisely because I was willing to challenge the assumptions of what we often referred to as “the Washington playbook,” whether it was on Middle East policy, our posture on Cuba, our unwillingness to engage adversaries diplomatically, the importance of restoring legal guardrails in the fight against terror, or the elevation of human rights, international development, and climate change from acts of altruism to central aspects of our national security. None of these younger staffers were firebrands, and they respected the institutional knowledge of those with deep foreign policy experience. But they made no apologies for wanting to break from some of the constraints of the past in pursuit of something better.

At times, friction between the new and the old guard inside my foreign policy team would spill into the open. When it did, the media tended to attribute it to a youthful impertinence among my staff and a lack of basic understanding about how Washington worked. That wasn’t the case. In fact, it was precisely because staffers like Denis did know how Washington worked—because they’d witnessed how the foreign policy bureaucracy could slow-walk, misinterpret, bury, badly execute, or otherwise resist new directions from a president—that they would often end up butting heads with the Pentagon, State Department, and CIA.

And in that sense, the tensions that emerged within our foreign policy team were a product of my own design, a way for me to work through the tensions in my own head. I imagined myself on the bridge of an aircraft carrier, certain that America needed to steer a new course but entirely dependent on a more seasoned and sometimes skeptical crew to execute that change, mindful that there were limits to what the vessel could do and that too sharp a turn could lead to disaster. With the stakes as high as they were, I was coming to realize that leadership, particularly in the national security arena, was about more than executing well-reasoned policy. Awareness of custom and ritual mattered. Symbols and protocol mattered. Body language mattered.

I worked on my salute.

AT THE START of each day of my presidency, I would find a leather binder waiting for me at the breakfast table. Michelle called it “The Death, Destruction, and Horrible Things Book,” though officially it was known as the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB. Top secret, usually about ten to fifteen pages in length, and prepared overnight by the CIA in concert with the other intelligence agencies, the PDB was intended to provide the president a summary of world events and intelligence analysis, particularly anything that was likely to affect America’s national security. On a given day, I might read about terrorist cells in Somalia or unrest in Iraq or the fact that the Chinese or Russians were developing new weapons systems. Nearly always, there was mention of potential terrorist plots, no matter how vague, thinly sourced, or unactionable—a form of due diligence on the part of the intelligence community, meant to avoid the kind of second-guessing that had transpired after 9/11. Much of the time, what I read in the PDB required no immediate response. The goal was to have a continuously up-to-date sense of all that was roiling in the world, the large, small, and sometimes barely perceptible shifts that threatened to upset whatever equilibrium we were trying to maintain.

After reading the PDB, I’d head down to the Oval for a live version of the briefing with members of the NSC and national intelligence staffs, where we’d go over any items considered urgent. The men running those briefings—Jim Jones and Denny Blair—were former four-star officers I’d first met while serving in the Senate (Jones had been Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, while Blair had recently retired from his role as navy admiral in charge of Pacific Command). They looked the part—tall and fit, with close-cropped graying hair and ramrod straight bearings—and although I had originally consulted with them on military matters, both prided themselves on having an expansive view of what constituted national security priorities. Jones, for example, cared deeply about Africa and the Middle East, and following his military retirement he had been involved in security efforts in the West Bank and Gaza. Blair had written extensively on the role of economic and cultural diplomacy in managing a rising China. As a result, the two of them would occasionally arrange for analysts and experts to attend morning PDB sessions and brief me on big-picture, long-term topics: the implications of economic growth in sustaining democratization in sub-Saharan Africa, say, or the possible effects of climate change on future regional conflicts.

More often, though, our morning discussions focused on current or potential mayhem: coups, nuclear weapons, violent protests, border conflicts, and, most of all, war.

The war in Afghanistan, soon to be the longest in American history.

The war in Iraq, where nearly 150,000 American troops were still deployed.

The war against al-Qaeda, which was actively recruiting converts, building a network of affiliates, and plotting attacks inspired by the ideology of Osama bin Laden.

The cumulative costs of what both the Bush administration and the media described as a single, comprehensive “war against terrorism” had been staggering: almost a trillion dollars spent, more than three thousand U.S. troops killed, as many as ten times that number wounded. The toll on Iraqi and Afghan civilians was even higher. The Iraq campaign in particular had divided the country and strained alliances. Meanwhile, the use of extraordinary renditions, black sites, waterboarding, indefinite detention without trial at Guantánamo, and expanded domestic surveillance in the broader fight against terrorism had led people inside and outside the United States to question our nation’s commitment to the rule of law.

I’d put forward what I considered to be clear positions on all these issues during the campaign. But that had been from the cheap seats, before I had hundreds of thousands of troops and a sprawling national security infrastructure under my command. Any terrorist attack would now happen on my watch. Any American lives lost or compromised, at home or abroad, would weigh uniquely on my conscience. These were my wars now.

My immediate goal was to review each aspect of our military strategy so that we could take a thoughtful approach to what came next. Thanks to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki had signed about a month before my inauguration, the broad outlines of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq had largely been settled. American combat forces needed to be out of Iraqi cities and villages by the end of June 2009, and all U.S. forces would leave the country by the end of 2011. The only question remaining was whether we could or should move faster than that. During the campaign, I had committed to withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq within sixteen months of taking office, but after the election I had told Bob Gates that I’d be willing to show flexibility on the pace of withdrawal so long as we stayed within the SOFA parameters—an acknowledgment that ending a war was an imprecise business, that commanders who were knee-deep in the fighting deserved some deference when it came to tactical decisions, and that new presidents couldn’t simply tear up agreements reached by their predecessors.

In February, Gates and our newly installed commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, presented me with a plan that withdrew U.S. combat forces from the country in nineteen months—three months later than I had proposed during the campaign but four months sooner than what military commanders were asking for. The plan also called for maintaining a residual force of fifty to fifty-five thousand noncombat U.S. personnel, which would remain in the country till the end of 2011, to train and assist the Iraqi military. Some in the White House questioned the necessity of the extra three months and the large residual force, reminding me that both congressional Democrats and the American people strongly favored an accelerated exit, not a delay.

I approved Odierno’s plan anyway, traveling to Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, to announce the decision before several thousand cheering Marines. As firmly as I had opposed the original decision to invade, I believed America now had both a strategic and a humanitarian interest in Iraq’s stability. With combat troops scheduled to leave Iraq’s population centers in just five months per the SOFA, our service members’ exposure to heavy fighting, snipers, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) would be greatly diminished as we progressed with the rest of the drawdown. And given the fragility of Iraq’s new government, the ragged state of its security forces, the still-active presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and the sky-high levels of sectarian hostility sizzling inside the country, it made sense to use the presence of residual forces as a kind of insurance policy against a return to chaos. “Once we’re out,” I told Rahm, explaining my decision, “the last thing I want is for us to have to go back in.”

IF ARRIVING AT a plan for Iraq was relatively straightforward, finding our way out of Afghanistan was anything but.

Unlike the war in Iraq, the Afghan campaign had always seemed to me a war of necessity. Though the Taliban’s ambitions were confined to Afghanistan, their leadership remained loosely allied to al-Qaeda, and their return to power could result in the country once again serving as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies. Moreover, Pakistan had shown neither the capacity nor the will to dislodge al-Qaeda’s leadership from its current sanctuary in a remote, mountainous, and barely governed region straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This meant that our ability to pin down and ultimately destroy the terrorist network depended on the Afghan government’s willingness to let U.S. military and intelligence teams operate in its territory.

Unfortunately the six-year diversion of U.S. attention and resources to Iraq had left the situation in Afghanistan more perilous. Despite the fact that we had more than thirty thousand U.S. troops on the ground and an almost equal number of international coalition troops there, the Taliban controlled large swaths of the country, particularly in the regions along the border with Pakistan. In places where U.S. or coalition forces weren’t present, Taliban fighters overwhelmed a far larger but badly trained Afghan army. Meanwhile, mismanagement and rampant corruption inside the police force, district governorships, and key ministries had eroded the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai’s government and siphoned off foreign aid dollars desperately needed to improve living conditions for one of the world’s poorest populations.

The lack of a coherent U.S. strategy didn’t help matters. Depending on who you talked to, our mission in Afghanistan was either narrow (wiping out al-Qaeda) or broad (transforming the country into a modern, democratic state that would be aligned with the West). Our Marines and soldiers repeatedly cleared the Taliban from an area only to see their efforts squandered for lack of even halfway-capable local governance. Whether because of overambition, corruption, or lack of Afghan buy-in, U.S.-sponsored development programs often failed to deliver as promised, while the issuance of massive U.S. contracts to some of Kabul’s shadiest business operators undermined the very anti-corruption efforts designed to win over the Afghan people.

In light of all this, I told Gates that my first priority was to make sure our agencies, both civilian and military, were aligned around a clearly defined mission and a coordinated strategy. He didn’t disagree. As a CIA deputy director in the 1980s, Gates had helped oversee the arming of the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet occupation of their country. The experience of watching that loosely organized insurgency bleed the mighty Red Army into retreat—only to have elements of that same insurgency later evolve into al-Qaeda—had made Gates mindful of the unintended consequences that could result from rash actions. Unless we established limited and realistic objectives, he told me, “we’ll set ourselves up for failure.”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, also saw the need for a revamped Afghan strategy. But there was a catch: He and our military commanders first wanted me to authorize the immediate deployment of an additional thirty thousand U.S. troops.

In fairness to Mullen, the request, which had come from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander in Afghanistan, General Dave McKiernan, had been pending for several months. During the transition, President Bush had put out feelers to see if we wanted him to order the deployment before I took office, but we’d indicated that our preference was to hold off until the incoming team had fully assessed the situation. According to Mullen, McKiernan’s request could no longer wait.

At our first full NSC meeting, held in the White House Situation Room (often referred to as “the Sit Room”) just two days after my inauguration, Mullen had explained that the Taliban were likely to mount a summer offensive and we’d want additional brigades on the ground in time to try to blunt it. He reported that McKiernan was also worried about providing adequate security for the presidential election, which was originally scheduled for May but would be postponed until August. If we wanted to get troops there in time to achieve those missions, Mullen told me, we needed to put things in motion immediately.

Thanks to the movies, I’d always imagined the Sit Room as a cavernous, futuristic space, ringed by ceiling-high screens full of high-resolution satellite and radar images and teeming with smartly dressed personnel manning banks of state-of-the-art gizmos and gadgets. The reality was less dazzling: just a small, nondescript conference room, part of a warren of other small rooms wedged into a corner of the West Wing’s first floor. Its windows were sealed off with plain wooden shutters; its walls were bare except for digital clocks showing the time in various world capitals and a few flat-screens not much bigger than those found in a neighborhood sports bar. Quarters were close. The principal council members sat around a long conference table, with various deputies and staff crammed into chairs lining the sides of the room.

“Just so I understand,” I said to Mullen, trying not to sound too skeptical, “after almost five years where we managed with twenty thousand or fewer U.S. troops, and after adding another ten thousand over the past twenty months or so, it’s the Pentagon’s assessment that we can’t wait another two months before deciding to double our troop commitment?” I pointed out that I wasn’t averse to sending more troops—during the campaign, I had pledged an additional two brigades for Afghanistan once the Iraq withdrawal was under way. But given that everyone in the room had just agreed that we should bring in a well-regarded former CIA analyst and Middle East expert named Bruce Riedel to lead a sixty-day review meant to shape our Afghan strategy going forward, sending another thirty thousand U.S. troops to Afghanistan before the review was complete felt like a case of putting the cart before the horse. I asked Mullen whether a smaller deployment could serve as a sufficient bridge.

He told me that ultimately it was my decision, adding pointedly that any reduction in the number or further delay would substantially increase risk.

I let others chime in. David Petraeus, who was coming off his success in Iraq and had been elevated to the head of Central Command (which oversaw all military missions in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan), urged me to approve McKiernan’s request. So did Hillary and Panetta, which didn’t surprise me: As effective as the two of them would turn out to be in managing their agencies, their hawkish instincts and political backgrounds left them perpetually wary of opposing any recommendation that came from the Pentagon. In private, Gates had expressed to me that he felt some ambivalence about such a significant increase to our Afghan footprint. But given his institutional role, I didn’t expect him to directly countermand a recommendation from the chiefs.

Among the principals, only Joe Biden voiced his misgivings. He had traveled to Kabul on my behalf during the transition, and what he saw and heard on the trip—particularly during a contentious meeting with Karzai—had convinced him that we needed to rethink our entire approach to Afghanistan. I knew Joe also still felt burned by having supported the Iraq invasion years earlier. Whatever the mix of reasons, he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire and urged me to delay a deployment, suggesting it would be easier to put troops in once we had a clear strategy as opposed to trying to pull troops out after we’d made a mess with a bad one.

Rather than deciding on the spot, I assigned Tom Donilon to convene the NSC deputies over the course of the following week to determine more precisely how additional troops would be used and whether deploying them by summer was even possible logistically. We’d revisit the issue, I said, once we had the answer. With the meeting adjourned, I headed out the door and was on my way up the stairs to the Oval when Joe caught up to me and gripped my arm.

“Listen to me, boss,” he said. “Maybe I’ve been around this town for too long, but one thing I know is when these generals are trying to box in a new president.” He brought his face a few inches from mine and stage-whispered, “Don’t let them jam you.”

IN LATER ACCOUNTS of our Afghanistan deliberations, Gates and others would peg Biden as one of the ringleaders who poisoned relations between the White House and the Pentagon. The truth was that I considered Joe to be doing me a service by asking tough questions about the military’s plans. Having at least one contrarian in the room made us all think harder about the issues—and I noticed that everyone was a bit freer with their opinions when that contrarian wasn’t me.

I never questioned Mullen’s motives, or those of the other chiefs and combatant commanders who made up the military’s leadership. I found Mullen—a Los Angeles native whose parents had worked in the entertainment business—to be consistently affable, prepared, responsive, and professional. His vice chairman, Marine four-star general James “Hoss” Cartwright, had the sort of self-effacing, pensive manner you wouldn’t associate with a former fighter pilot, but when he did speak up, he was full of detailed insights and creative solutions across a whole set of national security problems. Despite differences in temperament, both Mullen and Cartwright shared attributes I found common among the top brass: white men (the military had just one woman and one Black four-star general when I took office) in their late fifties or early sixties who had spent decades working their way up the ranks, amassing stellar service records and, in many cases, advanced academic degrees. Their views of the world were informed and sophisticated, and contrary to the stereotypes, they understood all too well the limits of military action, because of and not despite the fact that they had commanded troops under fire. In fact, during my eight years as president, it was often the generals, rather than civilians, who counseled restraint when it came to the use of force.

Still, men like Mullen were creatures of the system to which they’d devoted their entire adult lives—a U.S. military that prided itself on accomplishing a mission once started, without regard to cost, duration, or whether the mission was the right one to begin with. In Iraq, that had meant an escalating need for more of everything: more troops, more bases, more private contractors, more aircraft, and more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). More had not produced victory, but it had at least avoided humiliating defeat and had salvaged the country from total collapse. Now, with Afghanistan looking like it, too, was sliding into a sinkhole, it was perhaps natural that the military leadership wanted more there as well. And because until recently they’d been working with a president who had rarely questioned their plans or denied their requests, it was probably inevitable that the debate over “how much more” would become a recurring source of strife between the Pentagon and my White House.

In mid-February, Donilon reported that the deputies had scrubbed General McKiernan’s request and concluded that no more than seventeen thousand troops, along with four thousand military trainers, could be deployed in time to have a meaningful impact on the summer fighting season or Afghan election security. Although we were still a month away from completing our formal review, all the principals except Biden recommended that we deploy that number of troops immediately. I gave the order on February 17, the same day I signed the Recovery Act, having determined that even the most conservative strategy we might come up with would need the additional manpower, and knowing that we still had ten thousand troops in reserve if circumstances required their deployment as well.

A month later, Riedel and his team completed their report. Their assessment offered no surprises, but it did help articulate our principal goal: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

The report’s added emphasis on Pakistan was key: Not only did the Pakistan military (and in particular its intelligence arm, ISI) tolerate the presence of Taliban headquarters and leadership in Quetta, near the Pakistani border, but it was also quietly assisting the Taliban as a means of keeping the Afghan government weak and hedging against Kabul’s potential alignment with Pakistan’s archrival, India. That the U.S. government had long tolerated such behavior from a purported ally—supporting it with billions of dollars in military and economic aid despite its complicity with violent extremists and its record as a significant and irresponsible proliferator of nuclear weapons technology in the world—said something about the pretzel-like logic of U.S. foreign policy. In the short term, at least, a complete cutoff of military aid to Pakistan wasn’t an option, since not only did we rely on overland routes through Pakistan to supply our Afghan operations but the Pakistani government also tacitly facilitated our counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda camps within its territory. The Riedel report, though, made one thing clear: Unless Pakistan stopped sheltering the Taliban, our efforts at long-term stability in Afghanistan were bound to fail.

The rest of the report’s recommendations centered on building capacity. We needed to drastically improve the Karzai government’s ability to govern and provide basic services. We needed to train up the Afghan army and police force so that they would be competent and large enough to maintain security within the country’s borders without help from U.S. forces. Exactly how we were going to do all that remained vague. What was clear, though, was that the U.S. commitment the Riedel report was calling for went well beyond a bare-bones counterterrorism strategy and toward a form of nation-building that probably would have made sense—had we started seven years earlier, the moment we drove the Taliban out of Kabul.

Of course, that’s not what we had done. Instead, we had invaded Iraq, broken that country, helped spawn an even more virulent branch of al-Qaeda, and been forced to improvise a costly counterinsurgency campaign there. As far as Afghanistan was concerned, those years were lost. Due to the continuing, often valiant efforts of our troops, diplomats, and aid workers on the ground, it was an exaggeration to say that we’d have to start from scratch in Afghanistan. But it nonetheless dawned on me that even in the best-case scenario—even if Karzai cooperated, Pakistan behaved, and our goals were limited to what Gates liked to call “Afghan good enough”—we were still looking at three to five years of intense effort, costing hundreds of billions more dollars and more American lives.

I didn’t like the deal. But in what was becoming a pattern, the alternatives were worse. The stakes involved—the risks of a possible collapse of the Afghan government or the Taliban gaining footholds in major cities—were simply too high for us not to act. On March 27, just four weeks after announcing the Iraqi withdrawal plan, I appeared on television with my national security team behind me and laid out our “Af-Pak” strategy based largely on the Riedel recommendations. I knew how the announcement would land. A number of commentators would quickly seize on the irony that having run for the presidency as an antiwar candidate, I had so far sent more troops into combat than I had brought home.

Along with the troop increase, there was one other change in our Afghan posture that Gates asked me to make, one that frankly took me by surprise: In April, during one of our Oval Office meetings, he recommended that we replace our existing commander in Afghanistan, General McKiernan, with Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and current director of the Joint Chiefs.

“Dave’s a fine soldier,” Gates said, acknowledging that McKiernan had done nothing wrong and that changing a commanding general in the middle of a war was a highly unusual step. “But he’s a manager. In an environment this challenging, we need someone with different skills. I couldn’t sleep at night, Mr. President, if I didn’t make sure our troops had the best possible commander leading them. And I’m convinced Stan McChrystal’s that person.”

It was easy to see why Gates thought so highly of McChrystal. Within the U.S. military, members of Special Ops were considered a breed apart, an elite warrior class that carried out the most difficult missions under the most dangerous circumstances—the guys in the movies rappelling from helicopters into enemy territory or making amphibious landings under cover of darkness. And within that exalted circle, no one was more admired or elicited more loyalty than McChrystal. A West Point graduate, he’d consistently excelled over the course of a thirty-three-year career. As JSOC commander, he’d help transform Special Ops into a central element in America’s defense strategy, personally overseeing dozens of counterterrorism operations that had dismantled much of AQI and killed its founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Rumor had it that at fifty-four, he still trained with Rangers half his age, and from the looks of him when he stopped by the Oval with Gates for a courtesy visit, I believed it—the man was all muscle, sinew, and bone, with a long, angular face and a piercing, avian gaze. In fact, McChrystal’s whole manner was that of someone who’s burned away frivolity and distractions from his life. With me, at least, that included small talk: During our conversation, it was mostly “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” and “I’m confident we can get the job done.”

I was sold. The change, when announced, was well received, with commentators drawing parallels between McChrystal and David Petraeus—battlefield innovators who could turn a war around. Senate confirmation was swift, and in mid-June, as McChrystal (now a four-star general) prepared to assume command of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gates asked him to provide us with a fresh, top-to-bottom assessment of conditions there within sixty days, along with recommendations for any changes in strategy, organization, or resourcing of coalition efforts.

Little did I know what this seemingly routine request would bring.

ONE AFTERNOON a couple of months after the Af-Pak announcement, I walked alone across the South Lawn—trailed by a military aide carrying the football and my veterans affairs staffer, Matt Flavin—to board the Marine One helicopter and make the brief flight to Maryland for the first of what would be regular visits to Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center. On arrival, I was greeted by commanders of the facility, who gave me a quick overview of the number and condition of wounded warriors on-site before leading me through a maze of stairs, elevators, and corridors to the main patients’ ward.

For the next hour, I proceeded from room to room, sanitizing my hands and donning scrubs and surgical gloves where necessary, stopping in the hallway to get some background on the recovering service member from hospital staffers before knocking softly on the door.

Though patients at the hospitals came from every branch of the military, many who were there during my first few years in office were members of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps that patrolled the insurgent-dominated areas of Iraq and Afghanistan and had been injured by gunfire or IEDs. Almost all were male and working-class: whites from small rural towns or fading manufacturing hubs, Blacks and Hispanics from cities like Houston or Trenton, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from California. Usually they had family members sitting with them—mostly parents, grandparents, and siblings, though if the service member was older, there would be a wife and kids too—toddlers squirming in laps, five-year-olds with toy cars, teenagers playing video games. As soon as I entered the room, everyone would shift around, smiling shyly, appearing not quite sure what to do. For me, this was one of the vagaries of the job, the fact that my presence reliably caused a disruption and a bout of nervousness among those I was meeting. I tried always to lighten the mood, doing what I could to put people at ease.

Unless fully incapacitated, the service members would usually raise their bed upright, sometimes pulling themselves to a seated position by reaching for the sturdy metal handle on the bedpost. Several insisted on hopping out of bed, often balancing on their good leg to salute and shake my hand. I’d ask them about their hometown and how long they’d been in the service. I’d ask them how they got their injury and how soon they might be starting rehab or be getting fitted for a prosthetic. We often talked sports, and some would ask me to sign a unit flag hung on the wall, and I’d give each service member a commemorative challenge coin. Then we’d all position ourselves around the bed as Pete Souza took pictures with his camera and with their phones, and Matt would give out business cards so they could call him personally at the White House if they needed anything at all.

How those men inspired me! Their courage and determination, their insistence that they’d be back at it in no time, their general lack of fuss. It made so much of what passes for patriotism—the gaudy rituals at football games, the desultory flag waving at parades, the blather of politicians—seem empty and trite. The patients I met had nothing but praise for the hospital teams responsible for their treatment—the doctors, nurses, and orderlies, most of them service members themselves but some of them civilians, a surprising number of them foreign-born, originally from places like Nigeria, El Salvador, or the Philippines. Indeed, it was heartening to see how well these wounded warriors were cared for, beginning with the seamless, fast-moving chain that allowed a Marine injured in a dusty Afghan village to be medevaced to the closest base, stabilized, then transported to Germany and onward to Bethesda or Walter Reed for state-of-the-art surgery, all in a matter of days.

Because of that system—a melding of advanced technology, logistical precision, and highly trained and dedicated people, the kind of thing that the U.S. military does better than any other organization on earth—many soldiers who would have died from similar wounds during the Vietnam era were now able to sit with me at their bedside, debating the merits of the Bears versus the Packers. Still, no level of precision or care could erase the brutal, life-changing nature of the injuries these men had suffered. Those who had lost a single leg, especially if the amputation was below the knee, often described themselves as being lucky. Double or even triple amputees were not uncommon, nor were severe cranial trauma, spinal injuries, disfiguring facial wounds, or the loss of eyesight, hearing, or any number of basic bodily functions. The service members I met were adamant that they had no regrets about sacrificing so much for their country and were understandably offended by anyone who viewed them with even a modicum of pity. Taking their cues from their wounded sons, the parents I met were careful to express only the certainty of their child’s recovery, along with their deep wells of pride.

And yet each time I entered a room, each time I shook a hand, I could not ignore how incredibly young most of these service members were, many of them barely out of high school. I couldn’t help but notice the rims of anguish around the eyes of the parents, who themselves were often younger than me. I wouldn’t forget the barely suppressed anger in the voice of a father I met at one point, as he explained that his handsome son, who lay before us likely paralyzed for life, was celebrating his twenty-first birthday that day, or the vacant expression on the face of a young mother who sat with a baby cheerfully gurgling in her arms, pondering a life with a husband who was probably going to survive but would no longer be capable of conscious thought.

Later, toward the end of my presidency, The New York Times would run an article about my visits to the military hospitals. In it, a national security official from a previous administration opined that the practice, no matter how well intentioned, was not something a commander in chief should do—that visits with the wounded inevitably clouded a president’s capacity to make clear-eyed, strategic decisions. I was tempted to call that man and explain that I was never more clear-eyed than on the flights back from Walter Reed and Bethesda. Clear about the true costs of war, and who bore those costs. Clear about war’s folly, the sorry tales we humans collectively store in our heads and pass on from generation to generation—abstractions that fan hate and justify cruelty and force even the righteous among us to participate in carnage. Clear that by virtue of my office, I could not avoid responsibility for lives lost or shattered, even if I somehow justified my decisions by what I perceived to be some larger good.

Looking through the helicopter window at the tidy green landscape below, I thought about Lincoln during the Civil War, his habit of wandering through makeshift infirmaries not so far from where we were flying, talking softly to soldiers who lay on flimsy cots, bereft of antiseptics to stanch infections or drugs to manage pain, the stench of gangrene everywhere, the clattering and wheezing of impending death.

I wondered how Lincoln had managed it, what prayers he said afterward. He must have known it was a necessary penance. A penance I, too, had to pay.

AS ALL-CONSUMING AS war and the threat of terrorism were proving to be, other foreign policy issues also required my attention—including the need to manage the international fallout from the financial crisis. That was the major focus of my first extended foreign trip when I traveled to London for the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit in April and then onward to continental Europe, Turkey, and Iraq over the course of eight days.

Before 2008, the G20 had been nothing more than a yearly meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors representing the world’s twenty largest economies to exchange information and tend to the routine details of globalization. U.S. presidents reserved their attendance for the more exclusive G8, an annual gathering for leaders of the world’s seven largest economies (the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada) plus Russia (which, for geopolitical reasons, Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair had pushed to include in 1997). This changed when, after Lehman’s collapse, President Bush and Hank Paulson wisely invited the leaders of all G20 countries to an emergency meeting in Washington—a recognition that in today’s interconnected world, a major financial crisis required the broadest possible coordination.

Beyond a vague pledge to “take whatever further actions are necessary” and an agreement to gather again in 2009, the Washington G20 summit had yielded little in the way of concrete action. But with practically every nation now poised for a recession, and global trade projected to contract by 9 percent, my assignment for the London summit was to unite the diverse set of G20 members around a swift and aggressive joint response. The economic rationale was straightforward: For years, U.S. consumer spending—turbocharged with credit card debt and home equity loans—had been the primary engine of global economic growth. Americans bought cars from Germany, electronics from South Korea, and practically everything else from China; these countries, in turn, bought raw materials from countries further down the global supply chain. Now the party was over. No matter how well the Recovery Act and the stress tests might work, American consumers and businesses were going to be digging themselves out of debt for a while. If other countries wanted to avoid a continued downward spiral, they would have to step up—by implementing stimulus packages of their own; by contributing to a $500 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) emergency pool that could be tapped as needed by economies in severe distress; and by pledging to avoid a repeat of the protectionist, beggar-thy-neighbor policies that had prolonged the Great Depression.

It all made sense, at least on paper. Before the summit, though, Tim Geithner had warned that getting my foreign counterparts to agree to these steps might require some finesse. “The bad news is, they’re all mad at us for blowing up the global economy,” he said. “The good news is that they’re afraid of what will happen if we do nothing.”

Michelle had decided to join me for the first half of the trip, which made me happy. She was less concerned with my performance at the summit—“You’ll be fine”—than she was with how to dress for our planned audience with Her Majesty the Queen of England.

“You should wear one of those little hats,” I said. “And carry a little handbag.”

She gave me a mock scowl. “That’s not helpful.”

I had flown on Air Force One close to two dozen times by then, but it wasn’t until that first transatlantic flight that I truly appreciated the degree to which it served as a symbol of American power. The aircrafts themselves (two customized Boeing 747s share the job) were twenty-two years old, and it showed. The interiors—heavy upholstered leather chairs, walnut tables and paneling, a rust-colored carpet with a pattern of gold stars—called to mind a 1980s corporate boardroom or country club lounge. The communications system for passengers could be spotty; not until well into my second term would we get Wi-Fi on board, and even then it was often slower than what was available on most private jets.

Still, everything on Air Force One projected solidity, competence, and a touch of grandeur—from the conveniences (a bedroom, private office, and shower for the president up front; spacious seating, a conference room, and a bay of computer terminals for my team), to the exemplary service of the air force staff (about thirty on board, willing to cheerfully accommodate the most random requests), to its high-level safety features (the world’s best pilots, armored windows, airborne refueling capacity, and an onboard medical unit that included a foldout operating table), to its four-thousand-square-foot interior spread out over three levels, capable of transporting a fourteen-person press pool as well as a number of Secret Service agents.

Unique among world leaders, the American president travels fully equipped so as not to rely on another government’s services or security forces. This meant that an armada of Beasts, security vehicles, ambulances, tactical teams, and, when necessary, Marine One helicopters were flown in on air force C-17 transport planes in advance and pre-positioned on the tarmac for my arrival. The heavy footprint—and its contrast with the more modest arrangements required by other heads of state—occasionally prompted consternation from a host country’s officials. But the U.S. military and Secret Service offered no room for negotiation, and eventually the host country would relent, partly because its own public and press corps expected the arrival of an American president on their soil to look like a big deal.

That it was. Wherever we landed, I’d see people pressing their faces against airport terminal windows or gathering outside the perimeter fencing. Even ground crews paused whatever they were doing to catch a glimpse of Air Force One slowly taxiing down the runway with its elegant blue undercarriage, the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA appearing crisp and understated on its fuselage, the American flag neatly centered on its tail. Exiting the plane, I’d give the obligatory wave from the top of the stairs, amid the rapid buzz of camera shutters and the eager smiles of the delegation lined up at the base of the steps to greet us, sometimes with a presentation of a bouquet by a woman or child in traditional dress, at other times a full honor guard or military band arrayed on either of side of the red carpet that led me to my vehicle. In all of this, one sensed the faint but indelible residue of ancient rituals—rituals of diplomacy, but also rituals of tribute to an empire.

AMERICA HAD HELD a dominant position on the world stage for the better part of the past seven decades. In the wake of World War II, with the rest of the world either impoverished or reduced to rubble, we had led the way in establishing an interlocking system of initiatives, treaties, and new institutions that effectively remade the international order and created a stable path forward: The Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Pacific alliances to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and bind former enemies into an alignment with the West. Bretton Woods, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) to regulate global finance and commerce. The United Nations and related multilateral agencies to promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts and cooperation on everything from disease eradication to protection of the oceans.

Our motivations for erecting this architecture had hardly been selfless. Beyond helping to assure our security, it pried open markets to sell our goods, kept sea-lanes available for our ships, and maintained the steady flow of oil for our factories and cars. It ensured that our banks got repaid in dollars, our multinationals’ factories weren’t seized, our tourists could cash their traveler’s checks, and our international calls would go through. At times, we bent global institutions to serve Cold War imperatives or ignored them altogether; we meddled in the affairs of other countries, sometimes with disastrous results; our actions often contradicted the ideals of democracy, self-determination, and human rights we professed to embody.

Still, to a degree unmatched by any superpower in history, America chose to bind itself to a set of international laws, rules, and norms. More often than not, we exercised a degree of restraint in our dealings with smaller, weaker nations, relying less on threats and coercion to maintain a global pact. Over time, that willingness to act on behalf of a common good—even if imperfectly—strengthened rather than diminished our influence, contributing to the system’s overall durability, and if America was not always universally loved, we were at least respected and not merely feared.

Whatever resistance there might have been to America’s global vision seemed to collapse with the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. In the dizzying span of little more than a decade, Germany and then Europe were unified; former Eastern bloc countries rushed to join NATO and the European Union; China’s capitalism took off; numerous countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America transitioned from authoritarian rule to democracy; and apartheid in South Africa came to an end. Commentators proclaimed the ultimate triumph of liberal, pluralistic, capitalist, Western-style democracy, insisting that the remaining vestiges of tyranny, ignorance, and inefficiency would soon be swept away by the end of history, the flattening of the world. Even at the time, such exuberance was easy to mock. This much was true, though: At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the United States could legitimately claim that the international order we had forged and the principles we had promoted—a Pax Americana—had helped bring about a world in which billions of people were freer, more secure, and more prosperous than before.

That international order was still in place in the spring of 2009 when I touched down in London. But faith in American leadership had been shaken—not by the 9/11 attacks but by the handling of Iraq, by images of corpses floating down the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and, most of all, by the Wall Street meltdown. A series of smaller financial crises in the 1990s had hinted at structural weaknesses in the global system: the way that trillions of dollars in private capital moving at the speed of light, unchecked by significant international regulation or oversight, could take an economic disturbance in one country and quickly produce a tsunami in markets around the world. Because many of those tremors had started on what was considered capitalism’s periphery—places like Thailand, Mexico, and a still-weak Russia—and with the United States and other advanced economies at that point booming, it had been easy to think of these problems as one-offs, attributable to bad decision-making by inexperienced governments. In nearly every instance, the United States had stepped in to save the day, but in exchange for emergency financing and continued access to global capital markets, folks like Bob Rubin and Alan Greenspan (not to mention Rubin’s aides at the time, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner) had pushed ailing countries to accept tough medicine, including currency devaluations, deep cuts in public spending, and a number of other austerity measures that shored up their international credit ratings but visited enormous hardship on their people.

Imagine, then, the consternation of these same countries when they learned that even as America lectured them on prudential regulations and responsible fiscal stewardship, our own high priests of finance had been asleep at the switch, tolerating asset bubbles and speculative frenzies on Wall Street that were as reckless as anything happening in Latin America or Asia. The only differences were the amounts of money involved and the potential damage done. After all, having assumed that U.S. regulators knew what they were doing, investors from Shanghai to Dubai had poured massive sums into subprime securities and other U.S. assets. Exporters as big as China and as small as Lesotho had premised their own growth on a stable and expanding U.S. economy. In other words, we had beckoned the world to follow us into a paradisiacal land of free markets, global supply chains, internet connections, easy credit, and democratic governance. And for the moment, at least, it felt to them like they might have followed us over a cliff.




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