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The Body Politic

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To be fair to Woodward, the idea that Obama’s Wars would serve as a reckoning for the Obama administration—in the same way that his State of Denial banged open the floodgates of criticism against Bush—came more from its advance press than the book’s premise itself. Breathlessly worded early skims of the book provided the bullet-points. Secret CIA-led Afghan hunter-killer teams, in-fighting between staff members, a military command that was ill-at-ease with their civilian counterparts. It all made for good copy and is certainly there in the book.


But after reading Obama’s Wars—the plural is heavily significant, seeming to refer not just to Afghanistan and Iraq, but also the shadow conflict in Pakistan as well as other hot-spots like Somalia, where the president could find himself pushed to intervene—it seems obvious that Woodward didn’t have that kind of narrative in mind. His story is told in a mostly anodyne, this-then-that style that manages to be less of a slog than you’d think. It all starts in January 2009 and runs through June 2010, with little in-between left to conjecture or analysis in Woodward’s accounting. As he (somewhat primly) asserts, every line in the book comes from one of his 100-plus sources or interviewees, not to mention enough leaked official planning documents, communiqués to keep Wikileaks in the news for weeks.


cover art

Obama’s Wars

Bob Woodward

(Simon & Schuster; US: Oct 2010)

Since publishing his CIA expose Veil in the late-‘80s, national security has occupied much of Woodward’s attention—sometimes to a fault. In Obama’s Wars, the chief executive flits into the picture only when matters of military or intelligence import are at stake, specifically matters involving the Afghanistan war and its habit of bleeding over the Pakistani border (thus the conflict’s wonkish nom de guere, “AfPak”). Those looking for a blow-by-blow rehash of the health care debate or mid-term election strategizing will have to look elsewhere.


As Obama settles into his presidency in early 2009, Woodward shows him being presented with one strategy briefing after another that appears to reveal one salient fact: with the Iraq war winding down and Afghanistan in some manner of stalemate, the true concern is Pakistan. One advisor after another presents the hard facts of a Pakistani government barely able to control its restive population, particularly in the so-called tribal areas along the Afghan border, where insurgents operated with impunity. Obama is appraised time and again of Islamabad’s double-dealings, where they gladly take American aid and allow drone strikes in certain areas while their intelligence service regularly aids and abets the Taliban. In addition, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari and Afghani president Hamid Karzai—the former described by Woodward’s sources as an out-of-touch fool and the latter as a paranoid, possibly doped-up, serial whiner and depressive—seem more intent on engaging in wild paranoid nightmares than handling their business.


Handed this excruciating dilemma, Obama should have become a figure of sympathy in Woodward’s account. There are moments where he seems determined to plot his own course against a military leadership determined to ask for more and more troops. Biden is the naysayer in the corner, wanting nothing more than to avoid another quagmire, while Rahm Emanuel breaks in from time to time to drop a reality grenade on people. Everybody in the inner circle has read Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster and they don’t want to replicate Lyndon Johnson’s letting the military walk all over them. (Though they don’t seem to have taken to heart one of the book’s central lessons, namely how LBJ’s people allowed the 1964 election distract them from the Vietnam question.)


However, despite all the election media’s adulatory talk of “no drama” Obama, his advisers seem perfectly content to try and erect a Bush-style wall around their leader, with any military realities that could negatively impact their domestic concerns hustled to the side. The somewhat unholy trio of White House operators—chief of staff Rahm Emamuel, senior advisor David Axelrod, and press secretary Robert Gibbs—comes off as particularly unctuous politicos. National Security Adviser General James L. Jones, worried about getting sidelined and kept from performing his duties of assisting the president, complains about there being “too many senior aides around the president … they’re like water bugs.”


Just as the Clinton administration entered the White House with a level of discomfort toward the military (which was immediately reciprocated), Woodward reports a disturbing disconnect between Obama’s water bugs and the military leadership he was inheriting from Bush, which was used to having a more direct line to the Oval Office. It’s clear that Afghanistan is simply one item in Obama’s overflowing inbox—as Woodward notes, there was exactly one sentence devoted to the wars in the Inaugural Address.


General David Petraeus, the relentlessly self-promoting hero of the Iraq War surge, and the man Obama chooses late in the book to head up the Afghanistan command after General Stanley McChrystal’s insubordinate remarks about Washington in a Rolling Stone article, sees the war in the long view. His take is that of the classic counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy where protecting civilians and improving quality of life takes precedent over enemy body counts, and can’t exactly be enacted overnight. Woodward quotes Petraeus in a private conversation presenting a view of Afghanistan that would make nervously exit-looking operatives like Emanuel blanch:


I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably your kids’ lives.


The Obama who emerges in somewhat shadowy outline in Woodward’s book doesn’t want that kind of commitment any more than his staff does. Early in the book, he announces with some prescience, “I think I have two years with the public on this.” Battling against any kind of time line or limitations on their operations are Petraeus and the various beribboned generals who agitate throughout much of Obama’s Wars for 85,000, then 40,000, then 30,000 more troops, and then, once Obama agrees to reinforcements, start trying to creep more soldiers into the deployment under his nose.


The overall effect of Obama’s Wars is like that of a days’-long security briefing, where one nightmare scenario after another is delivered by one puffed-up politician or general or expert, without any clear solutions being provided. By giving such a ground-level view of the daily grind of executive-level national-security affairs, where issues of the highest order seem to get lost in a shockingly juvenile roundelay of backbiting and bureaucratic gamesmanship (more than once you are tempted to shout at the players here to just grow up, stop worrying about their careers and do what’s right), Woodward shows how miserably difficult it can be to make history-changing decisions on the fly.


Almost as tough is the recounting of history while one’s in the thick of it. Woodward writes close to the ground, with an eye for the details and little attention on the larger scene. Hodge glares from afar, too full of scorn to get into the weeds. Woodward barely leaves the confines of the Situation Room or various Executive Building or Pentagon offices, while Hodge seems more interested in inveighing against the pallid state of modern liberalism. Neither explicate a well-considered view of how Obama and his policies fit into the fabric of modern-day America.


What Hodge appears to understand, at least, is that it’s a bad scene out there, something that might have made great fodder for Hunter S. Thompson in his paranoid, doomcrying prime, but nothing too enjoyable to live through.


The unemployment numbers refuse to budge. Every few weeks another packet of rumors skitters through the markets and sets off panics like car alarms after an earthquake. Neighborhoods are littered with foreclosure signs. The promised “green” economy refuses to show itself. American soldiers ride the IED-seeded highways of Afghanistan or hunker down in their Iraq firebases, worrying over the sniper’s bullet or the remote-detonated artillery shell out there with their name on it. Drones roam the skies of Pakistan, their remote-control rockets blasting Taliban gunmen and unlucky nearby civilians into bloody vapor. Guantanamo squats there on a remote Cuban shore as a mockery of high-minded American rhetoric. Men and women are still thrown out of their nation’s military for the crime of being gay. The previous administration’s tax cuts look likely to keep bleeding the Treasury dry. Empowered by the Supreme Court and a regulation-wary administration, corporations tighten their grip on the body politic.


Through it all, Obama remains a mystery. The most indelible view of Obama that comes from either one of these books, however, is in Woodward’s account, and it’s a silent one. In October 2009, Obama flies out to Dover Air Force base after midnight to greet a C-17 cargo plane arriving with the bodies of 18 service members. He first meets with the families in a chapel, and then goes to the C-17 and walks down the line of coffins, stopping at each one to say a prayer and leave a presidential coin:


For nearly two hours he stood in his long overcoat in the cool darkness and watched as a six-person Army unit wearing fatigues, black berets and white gloves transferred the individual cases from the plane to the van. It was all done with precision. The units had regular practice because Dover was the main point of entry for the nation’s war dead. By 4 A.M. the ceremonies were complete. The president thanked everyone, slipped back in the helicopter, switched off the overhead light. No one said a word during the 45-minute flight to the White House.


Though the connection is never explicitly made, it’s hard to forget that dark night of the soul while reading Woodward’s account of Obama wrestling with the damned-whatever-he-does impossibility of Afghanistan and Pakistan. For all Obama’s failures of vision and mistakes in basic governance—and Hodge’s recounting of those is likely only the initial salvo—it may at least be suggested that he dug his heels in against the Pentagon’s push for reinforcements without an end-date simply because he didn’t want to be surveying planeloads of the war dead for years to come.


Whether that will be enough is for the future to judge.

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.


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