OBAMA’S WARS

Mark Laluan

The moment Barack Obama decided to run for the presidency was a tacit acceptance that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would become his to fight and to win.

Bob Woodward’s new book, “Obama’s Wars,” gives us a window into how the Obama White House fought those wars over the past two years. Woodward, of Watergate and “Deep Throat” fame is no stranger to the political landscape of the Washington Beltway.

Before Woodward was hired as a reporter for the Washington Post, he served a five year tour-of-duty in the United States Navy, which had him shuttling around various duty posts, putting him in contact with future movers and shakers on the political scene.

Woodward’s accumulated clout allows him to employ such suspect techniques as failing to reveal the identity of his most important sources and spinning assumptions derived from his personal musings on issues into ironclad facts. In spite of these two tendencies, the author does not rest on accumulated laurels.

He actively works to paint a picture of the Obama Administration removed from the expectations, for better or for worse, which have dogged the President even after he left the campaign trail. The narrative created by Woodward is thus not of Obama, the messianic figure of his campaign days, but of Obama, the bridge builder that is struggling to span the differences in opinion dividing his various advisers.

Which leads us to the primary object of Woordward’s account, which the author never actually states coherently but is self-evident by his chosen subject material: the question of whether Obama’s military advisers forced the president’s hand in continuing to fight in Afghanistan over the advice of his civilian advisers. Or did in fact Obama undertake the decision to continue the conflict in Afghanistan on his own?

The body of the work then maps out the Obama administration’s approach to fighting the War on Terror from various perspectives. Topics such as turf disputes between the State Department and military, Chinese cyber-warfare, General Stanley McChrystal is brouhaha over Afghan policy and our strained relations with such nations as Pakistan ensures that the narrative will give legs to the stories that Americans might only have a passing knowledge through the nightly news.

Woodward’s access to the White House is unparalleled and functions as a sign of his presence as a longtime fixture of political journalism.

In addition, this access shows a great desire by this administration to bask in the same sort of favorable light that Woodward showered the Bush Administration in when he dealt with their involvement in foreign affairs. One only needs to read his four previous books and note President Bush’s characterization as a decisive, hands-on leader, who had a leading role in crafting the foreign policy doctrine of unilateral engagement and aggressive democratic regime change that bears his name.

As the equivalent of a celebrity biographer for politicians, Woodward is at the sufferance of political figures such as Presidents Obama and Bush for the raw materials required to produce his works. The reader should be advised to take Woodward’s narrative with more than a modest dose of salt.

The price Woodward had to pay to construct his narrative is the complete anonymity enjoyed by his most sensitive sources. It is also worth noting the author in the past has a tendency to show in the most favorable light those who agree to give him the information he needs.

Perhaps it is no surprise that members of the Obama Administration such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser James Jones come off in a favorable light.

In contrast, Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, becomes a pincushion for the author’s criticisms. Holbrooke turns into both the scapegoat for most of the Obama administration’s failed policies in the Middle East, as well as a source of much comic relief.

Notably absent in any meaningful sense from this narrative are Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, economic adviser Larry Summers and Education Secretary Arne Duncan who all hold or held key roles in the power structure of the Obama Administration. However, as these figures were not directly involved by the president in the initial formulation and execution of policy towards the Middle East, they were excluded from Woodward’s depiction of these events.


While the author is still able to give the reader the opportunity to look in on otherwise classified conversations, without the ability to openly label the myriad figures he involves in his reconstruction of confidential conversations, the reader will be unable to piece together a picture of events for themselves.

Instead, the reader must trust Woodward’s ability to weave together various strands of information into something tangible. Yet at times the author runs out of relevant information to provide the reader and resorts to inserting his own thoughts.

These thoughts sometimes go wildly off-topic. Woodward’s needlessly convoluted re-telling of his experience visiting Afghanistan, a story that focuses on his inability to sleep in a tent, will either humor the reader or confuse him further.

In spite of the uneven presentation, Woodward’s narrative does not suffer as much as one might expect. Woodward’s account is favorable to Obama, but if one takes the time to read between the lines, we find a narrative that makes a concerted effort to describe over two years of foreign policy in the late-Bush and early-Obama Administrations.

Instead of creating a narrative with a clear beginning and a clear end, the end product is completely open-ended. Predictably, Woodward never lays out whether or not he found his answer.

After all, given the fact he wrote four thematic-based books on the Bush presidency alone, the layout of “Obama’s Wars” indicates that it merely serves as an introduction to the themes that the author will likely be focusing on in future books dealing the with Obama presidency.