Bob Woodward’s Bombshell

Obama’s Wars depicts an administration in constant disagreement and strife over which strategy to pursue in Afghanistan.

Robert Woodward may be one of the most astounding journalists that the United States has to offer. The man uncovered the biggest instance of presidential corruption in American history (the Watergate scandal), has authored numerous articles that have stoked debate in the public discourse, and has written books galore about the hot political topics of the day. His latest three books about the war in Iraq were particularly satisfying to the gossip hungry reader (In a span of three volumes, Woodward digs into the lower bowels of the Bush Administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. He engages in a great deal of political psychology, using President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell as his case studies.)

His most recent project however has generated far more buzz. Obama’s Wars, a detailed account of President Barack Obama’s numerous battles both inside Afghanistan and inside his own administration, is due to be released next week. And while the piece is narrative in tone and easy for the average reader to follow (which is typical of Woodward), this account is anything but unsubstantiated. According to The Washington Post, Woodward bases all of his assertions on thousands of documents, interviews with key White House officials, internal conversations, as well as notes from confidential staff meetings that took place in the Oval Office. In other words, the book is both sourced to the brink and interesting to read.

Similar to Woodward’s series about President Bush, this project is likely to hit Obama’s staff hard. Some of the revelations that are uncovered are none too flattering, and the work paints the Obama Administration as a bunch of egotistical personalities who cannot stand one another’s company. Take a look at these juicy pieces, courtesy of Blake Hounshell of Foreign Policy.

1) The administration’s civilian point man in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, doesn’t think the current strategy makes much sense. Vice President Joe Biden evidently hates Holbrooke’s guts. According to Biden, Holbrooke is “the most egotistical bastard [he’s] ever met.” Not much of an endorsement by any stretch of the imagination.

2) Throughout the administration’s three month-long Afghan strategy review, the president was deeply annoyed with his military commanders for recommending an increase in the ; a proposal that ran contrary to his own personal beliefs about the war.

3) Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a manic depressive who is sporadic in taking his medication. It will be interesting to see whether this description ends up damaging the American counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. It may not, but a revelation of this kind won’t help bring Karzai closer into the American orbit — an essential ingredient for a successful counterinsurgency approach.

4) President Obama tells Woodward that the United States will be able to “absorb a terrorist attack.” From a political standpoint, this is a remarkably stupid thing to say to a reporter. But from a strategic standpoint, the president is probably right. The threat of terrorism has been ingrained in the minds of Americans for close to a decade, so another hit on American soil will be less shocking than the 9/11 attacks were.

5) General David Petraeus, the man now running American and NATO operations in Afghanistan, wants the White House to stay out of his way so he can run the war free of distraction.

6) The CIA is bankrolling and training an elite Afghan paramilitary force with the purpose of capturing or killing senior Taliban and Al Qaeda members. There are around 3,000 members in this top secret team, and the intelligence agency has given them discretion to pursue militants into Pakistan if necessary. This, however, is not really an ulcer in the belly of Obama when comparing it to the rest of the list. The CIA is tasked to gather intelligence and protect American interests around the world. While human rights lawyers won’t like it, killing or arresting terrorists is an integral part of that job description.

These are just a few of the bullets in Woodward’s book but readers will undoubtedly find more when they preorder it online. And in addition to being an entertaining read, the book may also strengthen the historical record and perhaps contribute to the Obama legacy. Much like life, politics is a frustrating game where arguments of policy can quickly turn personal.

(I commend Obama’s advisors for not going into a self-defense mode. Rahm Emanuel in particular has played it smart so far. “Despite difficult circumstances, the president brings a consistently tough, determined and clear eyed strategic focus to these crises,” he said.)