[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Bob Woodward’s inside-the-White-House books always provide scoops and provoke controversy and his new one, Obama’s Wars, is no different, but with one vital twist: It is less a look back than a look around. Readers don’t merely re-live or debate, say, a president’s decision to start a war – nothing much can change that – but how he is now conducting, even escalating, a conflict at a key moment. The book concludes with an Oval Office interview with President Obama less than three months ago.
Perhaps for that reason – the topical factor — there have been fewer complaints, this time around, about Woodward’s methods or speculation about who leaked what, and more discussion of Obama’s wisdom and policies, and who is really calling the shots on Afghanistan. I suspect Woodward likes it that way, as he takes his usual heavy promotional campaign far and wide.
The widely-respected Afghan war expert Steve Coll (a former Woodward colleague at The Washington Post) writes this week for The New Yorker, “The book minutely chronicles the President’s careful and, at times, dyspeptic efforts to construct a plausible approach to his inheritances in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as Woodward unfurls spreadsheet-like detail about decision-making previously known to the public only in broad outline….Woodward leaves us with Obama as a war president in full, an author of lives and deaths in combat.”
And, yes, he also leaves us with the sense of an intelligent leader fully engaged – with a deeply flawed, perhaps tragic, “surge” policy virtually dictated by the generals. A key message in the book is the difficulty Obama faced in even getting the military and Pentagon to give him a non-escalation option. As Andrew Bacevich has observed: “Bluntly put, the Pentagon gamed the process to exclude any possibility of Obama rendering a decision not to its liking.”
Reviewing the book in The Washington Post this week, Neil Sheehan, the former reporter and author of fine books about Vietnam, wrote about the “Vietnamization” of the current war, and concluded: “The Taliban obviously cannot defeat the U.S. Army in set-piece battles, but it does not have to do that to win the war. It can bleed us of men and treasure, year after year, until the American people have had enough.”
Looking at polls today, however, one might conclude that the American people have already “had enough” but the war goes on. Bacevich asks: “Why fight a war that even the general in charge says can’t be won? What will the perpetuation of this conflict cost? Does the ostensibly most powerful nation in the world have no choice but to wage permanent war?” Does Woodward really get at those questions in his book?
Some nuggets from the book:
– Obama: “I’m not doing 10 years….I’m not spending a trillion dollars.” Also: “I’m not signing on to a failure.”
–Gen. David Petraeus: “This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
–Colin Powell warns Obama about generals riding roughshod over him: “You don’t have to put up with this. You’re the commander in chief. These guys work for you. Because they’re unanimous in their advice doesn’t make it right.”
–Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is described as a manic depressive, with severe mood swings. Intelligence reports suggest he is erratic and “delusional.” Woodward writes that he is often described as “off his meds” and high on “weed.”
–Former CIA Director Michael Hayden tells Rahm Emanuel, concerning the escalating CIA drone strikes in Pakistan: “Unless you’re prepared to do this forever, you have to change the facts on the ground.”
–Leon Panetta, CIA director: “How can you fight a war and have safe havens across the border? It’s a crazy kind of war.”
An interesting angle brought up by several commentators on the book is Woodward’s role, last year, in allegedly making it difficult, even impossible, for Obama to resist the generals’ demands. This revolved around a leak to Woodward, published last September in the Washington Post, revealing that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then leading our forces in the region, was privately demanding a 40,000 troop increase, claiming we surely faced defeat if he didn’t get it. Some say this really forced Obama’s hand and made the troop surge (it ended up only slightly smaller) certain.
Then there’s the enduring Woodward issue: Why do presidents and advisers end up talking to him so freely? Steve Coll tried to explain in an online chat: “He’s a Washington institution. It would be radical to defy him. It would be like trying to shut down the GAO—how do you go about it and think that you will end up better off?”
We will get to questions about those two aspects, but open by asking Woodward about dramatic events just this week: Pakistan closing a key border crossing after U.S. helicopter attacks on its territory, fresh charges of rampant corruption in the Karzai government, and reports that Karzai is stepping up negotiations with the Taliban. What does that suggest about the success of the “surge” and chances for the start of a pullout next year?