Obama's Wars is written by Bob Woodward. For those not in the know, Bob Woodward is one of the journalists who outed President Nixon in the Watergate scandal, resulting in Nixon's impeachment, subsequent resignation, and the suspicion of strong executive power for years to follow. When I saw that he'd written a book about Obama's approach to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I was intrigued, but not enough to read it. But when I heard that the Obama administration was quite irritated with what he had written, my curiosity was well and truly piqued.
Woodward's writing style is odd. It is as if, when editing the book, he did his absolute best to take his own opinions and voice out of it, having his interviewees serve as characters and movers of the narrative. Strangely, this made it very readable and addicting. I also loved how this approach made him an example of how journalism and journalists used to be: unbiased reporters of news as it appeared instead of sensationalist reactionary opinion mongers. Letting the readers derive their own opinion of what Woodward wrote instead of casting his own spin on it was much appreciated.
The result is fair, and no players come out looking completely rosy or clean. Obama is alternately intelligent, capable, vacillating, and indecisive. Petraeus is able, renowned, biased, and forceful. Karzai is both political dynamo and childishly self-centered. Hillary Clinton is both wise and power-seeking. And so on.
What I found dubious, however, and what probably pissed off the Obama administration was that Woodward ascribes to the belief that, if he hears something from more than one person, it no longer counts as classified information and can be published freely. So, say, if he were told something by Obama "off the record" and then heard the same thing "off the record" from Petraeus, Woodward would feel it legal and permissible to share the information with the public. I never quite understood why Woodward felt this was okay, but it certainly allowed for a more thorough and detailed book. And, probably, the likelihood that Obama and future presidents will share less with him in the future.
The Woes of Af-Pak
The book focuses primarily on the linked problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the incredibly thorough and lengthy deliberations of Obama's team as to which nation poses the greatest threat and which is the most important target of the United States' strength and influence. What dominates a huge part of the book is also the crucial decision of how many troops to send into Afghanistan and establishing a timely goal of when to start winding down.
As I read all of these intense policy discussions and arguments for one side or the other, I observed some things:
- People in positions of political power can be rather self-centered and focused on the ramifications of how their decisions affect their jobs more than whether or not their decisions are right. Holbrooke is a key example of someone whose high opinion of himself and his glory-seeking desire to solve the Af-Pak problem ended up creating lots of needless friction with those he worked with.
- The White House and the Pentagon (politicians and military) rarely see eye to eye, which can lead to clashes between the two. I was astonished to read of so many instances where the military tried to force Obama's hand by providing him really crappy, limited choices or by leaking intentions/plans to the public in an effort to get the people's opinion behind the military's wishes.
- Objectives are highly important, and those who say that the government never thinks over what they plan to do in wars or anything else are full of crap. I've never seen such agonized and detailed deliberation over any issue as I have Obama's administration and the goals of the war in Afghanistan. Even when at their self-centered worst, everyone thought of the men and women on the ground fighting as well as the will of the American people, as cheesy and perhaps stereotypical as it might sound.
In all, I found Obama's Wars engrossing, though reading about Afghanistan and Pakistan for so long got a bit fatiguing near the end. It is remarkable how complicated a situation it is over there, and reading the book helped me understand how difficult it is to make definitive and helpful choices about what goes on in those countries. I'm still an arbiter of finding a way to stay and finish the job successfully, but I now better understand the arguments of those who say we just need to cut our losses and get the hell out.
To anyone interested in the war in Afghanistan and the intricate policy decisions that have gone into it from the Obama administration, I highly recommend this book. It was interesting, revelatory, and provided a lot of background and character to those people we hear about every day but don't actually know much about.