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Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward

January 6, 2011

This is Woodward’s account of the behind-the-scenes activity leading up to President Obama’s decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The most striking thing about this book is Woodward’s journalistic diligence and the level of access he gains. He reconstructs important meetings from official meeting notes, classified memos and in-depth interviews with almost everyone involved, including the president. He only includes information that he can verify by a third party, and he delivers the facts in a straightforward manner that is absent of bias but not style. When the recent WikiLeaks memos were released, I was surprised that some of the “leaked” information was so widely reported as surprising news—much of it is contained in this book.

One might assume that the title of this book refers to Obama taking ownership of the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan. But Obama’s goal was to wrap up Iraq and focus on Afghanistan, which he believed had been neglected and under-resourced because of Iraq. There is a clear understanding by the administration that in doing so, they now “owned” the war in Afghanistan in a way they never owned Iraq. Thus, I interpret the “Wars” in Woodward’s title to be a reference to Afghanistan and not Iraq, but Afghanistan and the internal wars within the U.S. leadership.

What we see is the same conflict between the military and civilian leaders that has been going on for at least the past 50 years. Obama sought to craft a plan that ended with an American exit from Afghanistan because, according to the intelligence, the real danger, the real enemy, was no longer there. They’d crossed into Pakistan and scattered elsewhere. However, his top commanders wanted an additional 40,000 troops, because they wanted to “win” the war. Torn between his own goals and his instinct to trust his military advisors, Obama asked his military leadership for three options on troop levels, including their assessment of each. In what is the anticlimactic narrative climax of this book, in late 2009 they did present him with three options—two that were unrealistic.

“So what’s my option?” Obama asked. “You have essentially given me one option…. It’s unacceptable.”

He never got his three options. Against the frantic advice of VP Joe Biden, who wanted to limit the increase to 11,000 trainers, Obama signed on for an increase of 30,000 and drafted a six-page plan that he insisted his cabinet members either speak their opposition of or sign onto. The reaction to this of the various members of the cabinet is somewhat amusing. It’s as if, for some of them, nobody had ever asked them to commit to something before.

Overall, the personalities of the various players are on full display here, and after the maneuverings about troop levels, the interpersonal relationships are the most interesting part of this book. Obama’s relationship with Hillary Clinton is fascinating (this book picks up where David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win leaves off in that regard). And the level of respect he has for his generals (who he obviously disagrees with at times) and for Robert Gates is very high.

By the end of this book, I felt so much like an insider that when Obama tells Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership what he has decided and they start squawking about the political ramifications, I literally cringed and wanted to yell at them: “Get the hell out of here. You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Although I don’t agree with Obama’s ultimate decision, I gained respect and understanding for his rationale, as well that of those around him (mostly—Holbrooke comes off looking like a windbag). And I gained a better understanding of the how our leaders approach our country’s most difficult dilemmas behind closed doors.

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