Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

We may not always say so, at least by using the same term, but what we look for in a President is, above all, leadership. Obama’s Wars — Bob Woodward’s most recent behind-the-scenes report, a sort of current history — provides a front-row seat on the leadership style of Barack Obama. As I view the scene Woodward portrays, President Obama comes off looking really good as a leader.

Obama’s Wars is, essentially, an account of the months-long period in 2009 when President Obama, the members of National Security Council (including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton), and the Pentagon brass were wrestling with one another over how to approach the war in Afghanistan. It’s the stuff of which a graduate school case study in policy-making might be made — and quite a good one at that.

If you approach this book with the often-oversimplified notion that the battle lines would break down neatly, with the generals and the admirals on one side and the civilians on the other (especially in a Democratic Administration), you’ll be very surprised. As Woodward vividly shows, some of the most dogged opposition to the proposed U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan came from military men, both active and retired. And one of the most consistently hawkish figures in the exhausting debate was Secretary Clinton.

But even those characterizations are highly misleading. The debate Obama led in 2009 about the Afghanistan war was an immensely complex matter with a multitude of possible policy outcomes — none of them good. The resulting compromise — and it was that, after all — incorporated ideas from all sides. However, if a good compromise is marked by making “both” sides equally unhappy, Obama’s compromise was a curious one. It appears to have made “both” sides happy. The Pentagon exulted in receiving a large number of fresh troops for Afghanistan, believing that conditions on the ground there would require them to pursue their recommended tactics despite opposition from the White House, and convinced that the July 2011 withdrawal data Obama insisted on would slip by months and years. The political staff in the White House, by contrast, were content to give the generals the extra troops, believing that conditions on the ground would make it impossible for them to pursue their recommended tactics and knowing that the President would insist on sticking with the July 2011 date for the beginning of a withdrawal.

What most impressed me about Barack Obama — and I firmly believe historians of the future will bear this out — was the fortitude he displayed in resisting simple-minded formulas and half-baked claims. In the course of the great debate about Afghanistan, there was an abundance of both. The President, with considerable support from Vice President Joe Biden, more than held his own with the military brass. And, judging from the history of our last half-dozen Presidents or so, that’s saying a lot.

Woodward’s strength as a reporter is that he gets the story right — or so it would appear, since to the best of my memory no one has ever successfully refuted any of the incidents reported in his books. He relies on intensive and repeated interviews with all the principals. (After all, who would dare turn down the man who toppled Richard Nixon’s Presidency?) Even if a statement here or an interpretation there may be off a few degrees, Obama’s Wars can give you the feeling that you are witnessing up close one of the most fateful national policy debates of recent years.

ISBN-10: 1439172498

ISBN-13: 978-1439172490


1 Comment

Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction

One response to “Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward

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