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Book Review: Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward

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The title of Bob Woodward’s book is bound to confuse many readers, for one would think it refers to Afghanistan and Iraq, the two wars that President Barack Obama inherited when he took office. However, Woodward’s tome hardly mentions Iraq at all. Instead, this is a close (some would say microscopic) look at how Obama deepened his involvement in Afghanistan and fought the Washington establishment surrounding him, especially the Pentagon. The plural “wars” almost certainly refers to the entrenched military and intelligence officials who were used to getting what they asked for — and found in this president someone who actually had the nerve to stand up and say no.

Woodward has never been a dazzling writer, and he doesn’t exactly thrill in this volume either. Where one might expect a little Washington gossip, or at least a few little bits of information about the transfer from the George W. Bush to Obama administrations, readers get precious little. To say the book is ponderous is an understatement. I think the only surprise I learned was that Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan is bi-polar and is often described as “off his meds.” Who knew?

The rest drones on with the desultory tones of a history book. If you are a political wonk and really get into who is the head of the National Security Council and who does the Presidential Daily Briefing, this is the book for you, because it has every detail about what goes on at presidential meetings, and then some. For the rest of us, Woodward just goes overboard with every conversation he could possibly log between all the major players from chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael G. Mullen to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What bugs me is he throws in quotations of conversations he couldn’t possibly have heard — but that’s his quirk.

The problem with Obama’s Wars is the difficulty with any current affairs book; it goes out of date quickly. Already, head of the NSC, Gen. James L. Jones, has resigned, leaving his deputy, Thomas E. Donilon, in charge. For those who haven’t read the book that would seem a fairly benign change. However, behind the scenes, this move is bound to be causing quite a contretemps, for Donilon, a civilian, is not well regarded by the military, and Jones himself did not see eye-to-eye with Joint Chiefs of Staff head Mullen. With Rahm Emanuel out as Chief of Staff, you can bet that more personalities are clashing in Washington.

Besides being a book about egos who undercut each other or overplay themselves on the national stage, Woodward’s book is about national advisers who have far too little respect for the man elected to the highest office in the land. You’d think that with his bona fides tested in the campaign, Obama, who graduated best in his class from Harvard Law School and was a former Constitutional Law professor, wouldn’t be considered an easy target for a game of Hide the Numbers. But it’s amazing that the Pentagon tried, along with ambassadors and national security advisors. Even after long, serious study of the Afghan situation, attended by all important parties, Obama’s advisors went home, then returned and acted as if they had never heard the presentation.

They wanted 40,000 troops in Afghanistan. David Petraeus wanted a counterinsurgency program. Mullen stood with Petraeus. Jones was dead set against Petraeus. Meanwhile, vide-president Biden, who is described as so long-winded that people wince when he starts talking, had a completely different plan, for a counterinsurgency effort based near the edges of Pakistan.

Near the end of the book (which is so wearying, you wonder how Obama himself must have felt), the reader realizes that for all the advice, the president was on his own. Except for some apt advice from former Secretary of State Colin Powell, he had hardly anyone to trust and an entire country to please. Some wanted a bigger war. Some wanted none at all. He had Karzai who would love the Americans to stay and take care of all his problems. And if he listened to the military, he’d be adding even more billions to his already huge budget.

Obama didn’t want a war, but he had to show that we weren’t going to cave in to the Taliban or al Queda (who are in Pakistan, anyway). He set the troops number at 30,000, refused to back down when the military carped. Obama precisely dictated terms of his order down to how many cases of tissue paper were allowed to be shipped. I exaggerate, but it’s almost that humiliating. When he finally ground the Pentagon back to the wall, they knew they met their match.

As Woodword tells the story, they all come out shaking his hand, saying that’s the way they’d have wanted it anyway. Gates agreed to another year as Secretary of Defense (it was looking shaky before). Lots of love all around. But Obama had to push them to get there. Affghanistan head Gen. Stanley A McChrystal, was in the habit of making loose remarks, had about three chances to keep his job, most stemming from a disastrous speech he made in London in 2009, Unfortunately, Rolling Stone reported several comments that McChrystal and his men made about the civilians running the Afghanistan campaign, most dating back to the London speech. It was too much, He was out, and Petraeus was in. As far as Obama was concerned, this would be the end of the leaks and the insubordination.

As we know, the war goes on, although Obama promises a roll-out by June, 2011. We will see if that happens. It was a skirmish getting to where we are now, and far too few American appreciate the work the President did winding down the Iraq war to put the surge into Afghanistan. From the looks of things, the man has to fight every day with his own people.

If Woodward has done anything with this book, he’s shown that a day in the life of a president is probably the most stressful day you could imagine.

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