In Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward provides the most intimate and sweeping portrait yet of the young president as commander in chief. Drawing on internal memos, classified documents, meeting notes and hundreds of hours of interviews with most of the key players, including the president, Woodward tells the inside story of Obama making the critical decisions on the Afghanistan War, the secret campaign in Pakistan and the worldwide fight against terrorism.
At the core of Obama’s Wars is the unsettled division between the civilian leadership in the White House and the United States military as the president is thwarted in his efforts to craft an exit plan for the Afghanistan War.
It seems almost redundant to review Obama’s Wars. Every new Woodward book receives such blanket coverage in the political press – be it review services or sites, or the news itself – one must wonder what worth I could offer as someone disconnected from the politics and environment he covers. Therefore, rather than regurgitate analysis and observations of the content (although, I’ll offer a few), I’ll focus more on what value I think the book holds for the average reader, scholars, and policy-makers.
First, some quick observations about the content. Vice President Joe Biden comes across very well, as do Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and General David Petraeus.
President Obama comes across as quite aloof (a common impression), yet far from uninformed or naïve. His advisors seem more concerned with the political and electoral impact of every decision on Afghanistan, rather than the broader implications. There’s a general sense of confusion and tension between civilians and military – different ideas of what’s achievable, different approaches, and so forth.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair “increasingly... saw a fault line in the administration.” He saw the disconnect between those within the White House and those outside. He saw “[Rahm] Emanuel’s ‘us’ meant Obama and his team of political advisers in the White House. The military leaders and former four-stars, such as Jones and himself, were outsiders,” (122) often cut out of deliberations and meetings – despite Obama’s assurances that the intelligence officials, and especially National Security Officials would be kept in the loop on all foreign policy decisions and policy. The promise was quickly broken, which might explain many of their accommodating approach to Woodward’s interview requests.
General Jim Jones, who seems to have been quite a source for Woodward (which might explain, in part, his recent departure from office), also saw the divide in the administration. He believed
“there was another group that President Obama was not tough enough on – his senior White House political advisers, whom [Jones] saw as major obstacles to developing and deciding on a coherent policy. This group included Emanuel, Axelrod, press secretary Robert Gibbs, and the two former Senate operatives now placed in the NSC – Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert.” (137-138)
Jones called this group, privately, the “water bugs”, who “flit around” the president and policy-making, but do “not understand war or foreign relations... and were too interested in measuring the short-term political impact of the president’s decisions in these areas.” (138) To get around the problems inherent in this type of environment, Gates accused policymakers of following “the classic Henry Kissinger model”, which is to offer “three options, two of which are ridiculous, so you accept the one in the middle”. (103) The implication being, this is not how the US should be making policy.
Many reviewers have characterised the book as revelatory or shocking. But, it’s really not. Just as the McChrystal interview in Rolling Stone wasn’t as shocking or damning (for anyone with a calm, rational brain) as either politicians, media pundits, or the editorial staff of the magazine thought, Woodward’s revelations are not particularly shocking. In fact, his book merely reinforces – in a very well-written and worthwhile manner, it’s true – the realities of both civil-military relations and the difficulties of making Afghanistan policy. Anyone who has been following Obama’s administration in the press (i.e. those people likely interested in buying this book in the first place) will perhaps benefit from reading it, but they will probably not be overly surprised by the content, and not consider it particularly revelatory.
There are some moments of surprising honesty from some of the subjects interviewed for the book. For example, outgoing Director of the CIA Michael Hayden takes offence at his replacement, Leon Panetta’s opinion on the WMD scandal that led to the Iraq War:
“You claimed the [Bush] administration cherry-picked the intelligence for Iraqi WMD... That’s not true. We got it wrong. Okay? It was a clear swing and a miss. It’s our fault.” (93)
Given the opportunity Hayden could have taken to blame President Bush or his advisors, I thought it surprising for him to say something clearly deleterious to his agency’s reputation.
Woodward’s writing is, as can be expected, superb, and he manages to make his narrative quick-paced and readable. He has a rare ability for making his books so accessible, for which he should be thanked profusely. Ultimately, however, as with almost every Obama-related book published thus-far, it would have been better to write a similar-length volume on Obama’s whole presidency (be it four or eight years). The level of detail on offer in Obama’s War is laudable, and helpful for those studying civil-military relations and war policy-making. But it is also the book’s weakness, as sometimes it feels simply excessive – detail for the sake of detail, not to mention frequently repetitive in substance.
At times, Woodward injects himself into the narrative, as well – sometimes well (for example, his night-time hunt for a lavatory while at a US base in Afghanistan), at other times rather self-congratulatory (announcing that a Washington Post piece of his had “obvious… news value”). I suppose one can expect this, as he is a Washington ‘personality’ in his own right. But it smacks of a journalist’s lust to be part of the story, rather than merely reporter of the story (something UK journalists suffer more than American ones, it’s true, but they’re not immune to the allure).
So, to sum up this very short review, I would say the book is a valuable single-volume source on Obama’s Afghanistan policy to date, but because of the narrow timeframe, in an evolving policy area, its value will be limited by the next book on the subject (I imagine we won’t have to wait too long). We are unlikely to get one so well written or accessible, but that does not make up for the fact that it’s too soon to have written this book.