Sunday, October 03, 2010

Book Review: "Obama's Wars"

Bob Woodward's books are something of a staple for me; as soon as a new one appears, I read it (in the meantime trying to avoid the breathless coverage of its revelations in the press before the publication date). Obama's Wars (just out from Simon & Schuster) is no different. I think of these books as little more than extra-long newspaper articles; without the benefit of hindsight that later historians will have, Woodward's journalism offers a fly-on-the-wall view of decision-making processes in all their messy, mind-numbing tedium and turf-guarding bluster.

This book effectively chronicles the year from Obama's election through early December 2009, when he announced the 30,000-troop "surge" into Afghanistan that will - hopefully - culminate in the beginnings of a drawdown there in July 2011. It recreates through in-depth interviews with many of those involved the deliberations, deals and strategy sessions that ultimately led to that announcement, and then briefly recounts what's happened since (the sacking of DNI Dennis Blair and Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal, and the failed Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shahzad, for example).

What comes through loud and clear is the impression of a president deeply engaged with the decision-making process, who understands the consequences of his actions, and who treats his responsibilities as commander in chief with all the seriousness they deserve. Obama comes across as a leader who permits significant, even rancorous debate among his team, but who can grow impatient - and justifiably so - when he's not being given the full story or being presented with a complete set of options from his advisors.

I think the most frightening aspect of the book for me was the level to which the military commanders advising Obama seemed to be always pushing for more troops and a broadening of the mission in Afghanistan, and that they seemed impervious at times to the directives Obama passed along to them for ways to focus their efforts and offer him realistic alternative approaches. The level of personal animosity and tension between various members of the national security apparatus is more than a little worrying, but in the end it seems like the president has a good team and knows how to manage them well. The vice president comes off particularly well - he may get on everybody's nerves once in a while, but he's engaged, serious, and relentlessly realistic. Some others (most notably the national security advisor) don't emerge in such a flattering light.

The major question that this book raises, and that the players never seem to manage a clear answer to is how we can achieve our goals in Afghanistan without a stronger partner there (Karzai does not appear at this point to be the serious leader the country needs in order to get back on its feet), and how can we work with Pakistan to ensure that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are rooted out of their safe havens and thoroughly beaten back? These questions, which are certainly being handled every day by the administration and will be the subject of a thorough review at the end of the year, remain to be resolved - Woodward's got another book to write.

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