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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.

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During the meetings, Obama grows a little tired of all the numbers too, and wonders if his military advisers aren’t missing the bigger picture. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, along with Admiral Mike Mullen, insist that they need 40,000 troops, a full-on counterinsurgency plan, and six to eight years more to conquer Afghanistan. Sometimes they say this, unauthorized, before television cameras, incensing the president and his staff. For his part, Obama coolly questions their reasoning, seeks evidence for their claims, and stews over the Chicago-school notion of opportunity cost: With every billion dollars spent on Afghanistan, he foregoes important priorities for the country at home. He will not give up an important fight, but insists on realism now that nine years have shown the limits of American power in Afghanistan.

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Woodward sketches presidents well, mosaic-style. His George W. Bush was a gut-based, shoot-from-the-hip delegator, all nicknames, belt-buckles, and backslaps. If the generals asked for 40,000, that’s what they got. “Obama’s Wars” suggests – without claiming so outrightly – that Bush’s way of running things was an abdication of the civilian control of the military, a principle that Obama has reasserted. Obama respects his generals’ judgment, but never forgets that the decision is his – and it cannot be made in a vacuum. With the support and encouragement of Vice President Joe Biden – who emerges, somewhat improbably, as an adviser of very fine judgment – Obama listens to the differing views for months and then firmly ends the debate. Here’s what we’re going to do, he says, and then sits down and drafts the policy himself, an unprecedented gesture. It’ll be 30,000 troops, and they start coming home in July 2011. That’s an order.

With a climax like that, “Obama’s Wars” is more than anything a study in leadership and management style. Obama emerges as cerebral, analytical, and confident enough to inject his own judgment into decisionmaking. It is a reassuring image in an uncertain time. But will the surge work? One of Woodward’s sources is skeptical: “Obama had to do this 18-month surge just to demonstrate, in effect, that it couldn’t be done.” The first official review of the policy occurs in December 2010. Expect another book from Woodward shortly thereafter.

Michael O’Donnell is a lawyer in Chicago whose criticism and legal affairs writing appears in the Nation and and Bookforum.

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