Sunday, September 21, 2008

Book Review: "The War Within"

Bob Woodward's insta-histories has become sort of a habit of mine; since Bush at War (2002), which seems a lifetime ago, I've read each of the volumes as they have appeared, at their own regular and predictable pace: Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial, (2006) and now The War Within (2008, just out from Simon & Schuster). Woodward's journalistic prose remains much as it always has been (these books are basically really long newspaper articles), but the lack of bells and whistles serves only to underscore the important subjects at hand.

Like State of Denial, which I called "eminently depressing" in my review, The War Within does not put the current presidential administration in a particularly good light. And considering the havoc they've overseen, it could hardly be otherwise. In this book, which covers events from late 2005 through the early part of this year, Woodward examines the debate (my own adjectives for which would include incoherent, haphazard, unmanaged, ...) over Iraq strategy which consumed the American political and military leadership during that time - except for when it was completely ignored and events allowed to drift with the bloody tides of increasing violence and continued political turmoil in Iraq.

What comes through most clearly from this book is the extent of the dysfunctionality which paralyzed the Bush administration through much of 2006, as its various players worked to answer what Woodward calls "the big question: if it's not working, what do you do?" As we know now, the final answer to that was implement a surge of troops into Baghdad and push hard(er) there for security ... but this was far from a foregone conclusion, and as Woodward reveals here was not even the solution being sought by the commanders on the ground.

As depressing as its predecessor, but no less important, The War Within tells a cautionary tale of how not to manage a war. The two men who are vying to inherit this war would do well to read it, and labor mightily not to repeat the mistakes recounted herein.