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Obama's Wars

More than anything else, "Obama's Wars" – Bob Woodward's latest must-read political tome – is a study in leadership and management style.

By Michael O'Donnell / October 5, 2010

Obama’s Wars By Bob Woodward Simon & Schuster 464 pp., $30

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Teachers of the world, relax: Bob Woodward is here to tell us about verbs. One of the main themes of his new page-turner, Obama’s Wars, is the unending battle among the mucky-mucks and Pentagon brass over the correct action verb to describe the United States’ mission in Afghanistan. Helpfully, for purposes of retention, it is an alliterative problem. Does the United States wish to “defeat” the Taliban, or merely “disrupt” it? Dismantle or degrade it? Surely not destroy it?

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Toward the book’s end the reader sighs at the resolution of this dilemma, which could occur with straight faces only in Washington, where phrases like “nattering nabobs of negativity” and “boob bait for the bubbas” were immortalized. President Obama ultimately defines the policy in Afghanistan thus: The United States will reverse the Taliban’s momentum and then deny, disrupt, and degrade it. What exactly the Taliban will be denied is left to the reader’s imagination, but your reviewer conjured up the image of a Shaq-like defensive swat at the rim: denied!

It turns out that “Obama’s Wars” is not much of a page-turner after all, certainly not by Woodward’s standards. In “The Brethren” (1979) he unloaded reams of juicy gossip about a little-understood institution, the Supreme Court. In “Bush At War” (2002), he wrote a breathless drama, impossible to put down, about the weeks following September 11, 2001. Even “Plan of Attack” (2004) was exciting: It chronicled the fateful decision to invade Iraq, revealing the thinking behind a controversial policy whose rationales have shifted over time. The line on Woodward is that even if his writing is stiff and his pervasive use of anonymous sources maddening, his books broadly capture in real-time the personalities and intrigue behind secret government decisionmaking.

In contrast to his best books, “Obama’s Wars” is a slog. It suddenly begins on page 1, and just as suddenly ends on page 380, like a rainstorm – or a headache. There is little analysis or sense of narrative; it feels as if Woodward merely assembled in chronological order nuggets and anecdotes from his many sources, diary-style, and then said to his agent, “Sell it!”

But the decision over what to do with a stale, inherited war that is going badly – a decision that is by nature complicated, bureaucratic, technical, and dry – does not make for high drama. The bulk of the book concerns a series of meetings of Obama’s national security team over whether to have a surge in Afghanistan, and if so, how many troops to send. These are matters of life and death, but somehow in Woodward’s rendering they become abstractions. Should it be 20,000 troops or 35,000? Or 40,000? At a certain point these options begin to look meaningless. With no reporting from the ground in Afghanistan or Pakistan – or for that matter from Veterans Administration hospitals – Woodward removes the stakes. His book is not about war; it is about process, chain-of-command, bickering, power-plays, and PowerPoint slides.

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