Obama’s Wars

Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward’s specialty is the insider book, an exhaustively detailed account of what really goes on in all those secret White House meetings. Having now read Obama’s Wars I have the other bookend to go with Plan of Attack.

Plan of Attack chronicled the process by which the Bush White House got the United States into war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama’s Wars moves us seven years later, inside the new Obama administration, as it struggles with the ways and means of waging — and getting out of — war in Afghanistan.

While the political players have changed — Bush and his zeal to do God’s work are gone — many scenes in the second book are depressingly similar to those in the first. There’s less messianic fervor, and there are fewer outright deceptions — Cheney and Rumsfeld are gone, too — but the political and military power games are still here.

Other presidents have been consumed, politically and morally, by the wars they inherited from others. Lyndon Johnson’s attempts to win in Vietnam forced him from office in 1968, leaving his successor, Richard Nixon, to oversee the loss of a war neither of them had started. Now, Obama has inherited another president’s wars.

“Wars” in this book doesn’t really include Iraq’s war, the winding down of which Woodward ignores. Afghanistan is Obama’s public war; the political and military policy battle which is Woodward’s subject is the president’s private war.

Obama wins the optics battle of the books. Bush was portrayed in Plan of Attack as blunt, unimaginative, and easily manipulated; in Obama’s Wars the president is presented as thoughtful and well-prepared. He welcomes the input of real and varied opinions; he is flexible and practical. It’s clear that Woodward has a higher opinion of this president than he had of the last.

Still, Barack Obama who was elected on a promise of change, begins meekly, accepting the military’s initial request for an additional 17,000 troops for Afghanistan as soon as his feet hit the deck. It’s only a few months later, before those additional troops have even been deployed in the field, that the generals are back with a request for an additional 40,000 men and women, without whom, they warn, Afghanistan will be lost.

While Obama campaigned against the Bush way of doing things, Obama’s Wars never shows the new President or anyone else in his administration seriously contemplating an early withdrawal from Afghanistan. Throughout the book, Obama and his advisers are aware that their strongest political opposition to increasing American troop strength in Afghanistan will come from within the President’s own party. Obama is convinced that the terrorist threat to the U.S. requires defeating, or at least de-fanging, Al Qaeda. And that means keeping combat troops in the field in Afghanistan. There is no war vs. not-war debate; there is only debate about how, and for how long, to engage the enemy. The same is true for Woodward. Nowhere does the author address critically the question of whether or not to make war — this is a book about how to make war.

It’s a few months after his capitulation on the 17,000 troops request that Obama’s different leadership style begins to assert itself. Where Bush famously hated lengthy discussion of policy details, Obama conducts a series of long and wide-ranging conferences, in which many options are considered at length and the key players all have adequate chance to make their cases. The Bush White House, as portrayed by Woodward, operated by looking for plausible justifications for ideologically-driven, top-down decisions. We know what we believe — now go prove it for us. Woodward’s Obama White House is very different, with the debate over Afghanistan policy consuming weeks and even months of top-level round table meetings to discuss policy options. Obama is portrayed as genuinely seeking a viable, rationally-supported policy.

Throughout, however,, Obama suffers from the inherent structural weaknesses, the inevitable human dynamics, of the system he heads. His campaign staff, imported to the White House, continue to think and act in campaign mode, especially distrustful of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her staff. His post-election political aides see everything from their loyalist perspective. The intelligence community, which has never been united, not even right after 9/11, is no better now. And the military bosses who advise the President have both missions to accomplish and careers to promote.

As a result, there can be no “pure” decisions, no “objective” discussion, no “unbiased” advice. Obama the former first-termer has a 35-year Senate veteran as a Vice-President, and a former First Lady, his primary rival for the Democratic nomination, as Secretary of State. General Petraeus would not be the first popular commander to challenge for the top job (something in which the Republican commander has so far denied interest). Everyone has an agenda that’s both smaller and larger than the group’s goal of deciding how best to address the unacceptable possibility of spending a generation in Afghanistan. Woodward reports the concern of one major security aide that “Obama had perhaps underestimated the extent to which he had inherited George W. Bush’s presidency — the apparatus, personnel and mind-set of war making.”

Plus ça change, it seems. Yet, more than anything else, Obama wanted an exit strategy from the American combat mission in Afghanistan. To achieve that end, the President would have to resist the unrelenting pressure coming from the military, pressure for an open-ended commitment to an unlimited number of troops.

Obama’s solution to this pressure was to take the opposite approach to the one that had led other presidents into trouble. Bush had given the military everything it asked for in Iraq. And in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson had failed to make his policy decisions firm and binding enough to constrain the military. Woodward writes of the lessons learned by studying Vietnam and Iraq:

Presidents being surprised, presidents not getting into the details enough, presidents not being clear about what they wanted, presidents not understanding the implications of seemingly simple decisions. … They had all read Lessons in Disaster. One of its conclusions was that Johnson failed to translate his Vietnam decisions into specific orders for the military.

To the military’s annoyance, Obama was not going to make that mistake. And as Obama’s Wars goes on, Woodward depicts a surer and surer leader, a cerebral president who learns quickly, who after listening to all viewpoints makes his own decision and insists that his entire team sign off on it. In the end, the troop and mission plans Obama orders are the result of careful planning and real thought, and not merely a military wish list.

For the reader, the level of “he said, she said, they said” detail in the book can be daunting, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the players or the way the American executive branch operates. That said, Obama’s Wars is especially interesting in contrast to Plan of  Attack. Obama’s interest is in making the best choices; Bush’s was in making the most war.

So while it may be disappointing that Barack Obama has had to be a wartime Commander-in-Chief, the good news is that he’s not George W. Bush.


Although Obama wasn’t the focus of Death of the Liberal Class, reviewed here, Chris Hedges has a much less positive assessment of the first half of Barack Obama’s presidency. Here’s some of what Hedges had to say:

He promised that the transfer of $12.8 trillion in taxpayer money to Wall Street would open up credit and lending to the average consumer following the financial crisis. It did not. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) admitted that banks have reduced lending at the sharpest rate since 1942. As a Senator, Obama promised he would filibuster amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which retroactively made legal the wiretapping and monitoring of millions of American citizens without warrant; instead, he supported passage of that legislation. He told us he would withdraw American troops from Iraq, close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, end torture, restore civil liberties such as habeas corpus, pass a health-care bill with a robust public option, and create new jobs. Some troops have been withdrawn, slowly and piecemeal, from Iraq, but other than this too-little-too-late process, none of his promises has been kept.
He shoved a health-care bill down our throats that will mean ever-rising co-pays, deductibles, and premiums and leave most of the seriously ill bankrupt and unable to afford medical care. Obama, after promising meaningful environmental reform, did nothing to halt the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, a decision that ended perhaps our final chance to save the planet from the catastrophic effects of climate change. He empowers Israel’s brutal apartheid regime. He has expanded the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where hundreds of civilians, including entire families, have been slaughtered by sophisticated weaponry such as drones and the AGM-144 Hellfire missile, which sucks the air out of its victim’s lungs. He is delivering war and death to Yemen, Somalia, and, perhaps soon, he will bring it to Iran. Obama is part of the political stagecraft that trades in perceptions of power rather than real power.


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