Will Byrnes's Reviews > Obama's Wars

Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward
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May 02, 2016

really liked it
bookshelves: military-and-intelligence-non-fic, non-fiction, american-history, afghanistan
Read in February, 2011

Welcome to the sausage factory. When Otto Von Bismarck made his comment about the undesirability of witnessing the making of legislation, he could easily have included the making of foreign, particularly military policy.

When President Obama took office, he was faced not only with having to clean out the economic monkey cage the prior administration had left covered with feces, he also had to cope with two inherited wars. He had some very definite ideas on an approach to the Afghanistan War in particular and that is the focus of Woodward’s latest.

The primary battle here is Obama’s desire to limit the cost and duration of our combat in Afghanistan versus the military’s desire for constantly increasing resources. Most of the military favored a program of counterinsurgency that entailed protecting the population while going after the Taliban. This would require many more troops than other options. There is a telling moment when two maps are shown at a meeting, one showing the population centers and the other showing the troop deployments. The mismatch was obvious, as was one extremely huge hole in the plan, the near absence of troops at the Afghani-Pakistani border where most of the Taliban fighters crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan’s nearly ungovernable tribal areas.

One issue that was central to the policy discussions was whether US policy should seek to destroy or disrupt the Taliban. It was fascinating to see this play out.

There is a formula to Woodward’s books. He interviews as many of the players as possible, corroborates their versions with others, gets his paws on official documents, and reports the blow-by-blow of the discussions that lead up to final policy action. It is a good formula and Woodward is an expert practitioner. Of course many of the interviewees are spin meisters who do what they can to get their side of a particular conflict into the record. There are many, many opinions expressed here, and I felt at times that Woodward slipped his own bias into the reportage by merely repeating what they had told him, without checking to see if what had been said was true or not. While it might be a useful thing to have a stenographer in chief, a bit more evaluation might have been in order. He goes beyond at times, echoing in his own words a view of this or that person. Still, this is mother’s milk to policy wonks. Also the level of detail can get to be too much. One must wade through a thick soup of names, dates and references to documents to get to the real jewels of information.

It was interesting to see the non-stop politicking that goes into the creation of our military policy. It is not a pretty picture, bearing far, far too much resemblance to middle-school theatrics. It is as if every morning the players, political and military, check their facebook pages to see who has one-upped the other. Even his holiness, David Petraeus, is a player in the eternal publicity wars. Even after a decision is made, the players keep the game going, continually attempting to influence policy, and their own positions, by leaking to the press material designed to corner or embarrass the president, or to attack an opponent. To steal a line from the TV show Burn Notice, “Generals, what a bunch of bitchy little girls.”

One thing that was crystal clear was what a disaster Karzai was as an ally, whether on or off his meds. It was no news to me that Pakistan is no better an ally, particularly as it provides safe haven for much of the Taliban force battling in Afghanistan, as well as a hidey hole for Al Qaeda. I was pleased to see a look at the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Is it possible to separate the two? And it was informative to learn of some of the organizational chaos inside the ISI, which may be the single most important player in the conflict. But one thing that comes through clearly is how complicated the issues are in attempting to craft the best approach to the conflict. Obama comes across pretty well, as a president who is willing to drill down into wonkish details in order to fashion the best policy. Also, he is willing to give the military specific directives, something prior presidents have been loath to do.

There have been many books written about the ongoing conflict in AfPak. There is no one book that can tell it all. But Obama’s Wars offers real insight into the current US perspective, and that is a worthwhile thing.

==================================QUOTES

It was as if there were six or seven different personalities within the ISI. The CIA exploited and bought some, but at least one section—known as Directorate S—financed and nurtured the Taliban and other terrorist groups. CIA payments might put parts of the ISI in America’s pocket…but the Pakistani spy agency could not or would not control its own people. (p 4)

When the gunfire ended [in the Mumbai terrorist attack] the body count totaled 175, including six American citizens. The siege had been organized by a group called Lashkar-e-TAiba, which means the Army of the Pure and is commonly referred to by the acronym LeT…the open secret is that LeT was created and continues to be funded and protected by the Pakistani ISI. The intelligence branch of the Pakistani military uses LeT to inflict pain and hardship on India, according to U.S, Intelligence. The gunmen had, quite possibly, committed an act of war. (p 45)

Secretary Clinton addressed the consequences of not engaging with the Pakistani public for the past several years, contributing to America’s unpopularity there.

“There hadn’t been much public diplomacy in recent years,” she said. The history of the United States abandoning the region after the Cold War still hung over everything.

Meanwhile, “the US relationship with India is growing steadily,” she said, which to say the least was characterized as a negative in Pakistan. When the Pakistan media ran negative stories, there was not enough pushback. Where was a “counter-propaganda plan?” she asked.

“There’s been lack of sufficient funding, people, concepts, structures and authorities,” said Petraeus, chuckling. “Other than that we’re doing great.”

For much of the Bush presidency, U.S. policy had coddled Musharraf and disregarded the 170 million people in Pakistan. Clinton wanted a decision on multiyear, civilian assistance for Pakistani infrastructure, energy, and agriculture, in addition to media outreach. (p 209)
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Comments (showing 1-35 of 35) (35 new)

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message 1: by Christine (new) - added it

Christine Zibas Excellent review. After having just read Richard Engel's book on the Middle East, I am less inclined to think Obama has had an effective policy, although I do think his heart and mind are in the right place. Politics is a minefield, as is war, so you've got effectively ego squared.


Will Byrnes Am looking forward top reading Engel's book


message 3: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Great review!

"When President Obama took office, he was faced not only with having to clean out the economic monkey cage the prior administration had left covered with feces, he also had to cope with two inherited wars."--LOVE IT!


Will Byrnes Dem presidents seem always to be stuck cleaning up the mess Republican leadership leaves behind, whether it is moral debasement of the Nixon years, the economic freefall and wars that W left, the rocketing debt that Bill Clinton inherited from the Reagan/Bush military spending and tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy free-for-all. The grownups in the room always seem to be the Dems.


message 5: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Will wrote: "Dem presidents seem always to be stuck cleaning up the mess Republican leadership leaves behind, whether it is moral debasement of the Nixon years, the economic freefall and wars that W left, the r..."

Should Trump make it into the White House, there may not be any economic dirt left for a following Dem government to clean up. Actually, there may not even be any Democrats or Republicans left after Trump got to play with nuclear weapons.


Will Byrnes It is a very real concern


message 7: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Will wrote: "It is a very real concern"

Yes, it is. It is no longer a joke. This danger is real. I am afraid the apocalypse will be brought on by human stupidity.


Will Byrnes However it arrives, it is likely to be brought on by human stupidity, or arrogance.


message 9: by Brit (new)

Brit Cheung Why sometimes the policy from the white house and the Pentagon cannot be consistent, seemingly ambivalent even contradictory.

A president always brandishing the idea of nuclear weapons must be a lunatic!


message 10: by Will (last edited May 01, 2016 10:06AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes There are many competing elements within government. Both an advantage and a disadvantage of our form of government,

A president always brandishing the idea of nuclear weapons must be a lunatic!
Yes


message 11: by Darwin8u (new)

Darwin8u Is it ok here to say I HATE Woodward?


message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Woodward is a consummate insider. I am not a huge fan of his take on things, but he does a decent, if sometimes tilted job of presenting interesting interactions.

Why do you hate him?


message 13: by Darwin8u (new)

Darwin8u I think it is insider/hubris. Hate is a strong word, but I think his journalism is lazy since Watergate. I think it is all dependent on access, so he simply becomes the voice of those he grooms access to. I think it is the ugly side of political journalism. It is access pretending to be information. It is one step away from institutional propaganda. I also dislike Thomas Friedman and is ilk as well. Much for the same reason.


message 14: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I certainly share your concern about Woodward, although maybe not to the same degree. Ditto on Friedman From Beirut to Jerusalem was an amazing piece of work but he seems to have gone over to the dark side far too many times regarding trade issues. I stopped reading him years ago.


message 15: by Darwin8u (new)

Darwin8u Will wrote: "I certainly share your concern about Woodward, although maybe not to the same degree. Ditto on Friedman From Beirut to Jerusalem was an amazing piece of work but he seems to have gone over to the d..."

Yeah, I think you and I are on the same page. Look, I think there is a certain value of journalists with access and information, but during the Bush years for sure, I felt that Woodward became almost a pawn of the institutions and bureaucracy. That isn't to say there aren't gems found in his turds, but dear Lord, I'm not sure I have the stomach to wade through all the BS. :)


message 16: by Darwin8u (new)

Darwin8u I recommend you read: America's War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. I just finished it and loved it.


message 17: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I have Limits to Power on my TBR. And just added this one.


message 18: by Supratim (new) - added it

Supratim Bose Great review, Will !!! Added the book to my TBR.


message 19: by Lynne (new)

Lynne King An excellent review Will as ever.


message 20: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Supratim and Lynne.


HBalikov This review and comments encourage me that people are paying attention...and not just drinking the political happy juice being served that someone has a new plan that will give us great. results,,quickly at minimum cost. This is part of America's tar baby ...as is Iraq.


message 22: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Political snake oil never seems to go out of fashion, nor the salesmen who promote it.


message 23: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Really? Treason? Must be a Kool Aid stand around here. somewhere. But glad you liked the review.


message 24: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes And yet, it seemed suitable to note. Some more details seem called for.


message 25: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes The mess was American involvement. There is a considerable difference between expressing opposition to the war, of dubious legality, and committing treason. You can't have it both ways. If the government passes on declaring war, then meeting with foreign nationals is not an act of treason. Even Fonda recognized that some elements of her trip to Hanoi were mistake, (there had been many such trips before but they did not receive the coverage given to a big movie star) and she has publicly expressed her regret over that. But, I do not for a second accept the claim that her acts affected the outcome or pace of negotiations. Nixon had already drawn our ground forces in Viet Nam down to tiny fraction of what it had been at its peak, something like 20,000 as compared to half a million when Fonda visited Hanoi. The morale of the remaining troops was pretty bloody awful, regardless of anything Jane Fonda of John Kerry might have done. Opposition to the war was quite widespread in the USA, and was growing. It was in recognition of this that Nixon pledged to end the draft. Unlike WW II, in which there had been a clear casus belli, the Gulf of Tonkin incident was nice bit of political theater intended to justify support for a war for which there was not a lot of natural support. (Kinda like the mythical Iraqi WMDs) And opposition continued to grow until the war ended. There were considerable segments of our society that regarded the war as illegal. To say it out loud was hardly an earth-shaking event.

We always appreciate a bit of Swift-boating about Kerry. He was within his rights to talk to anyone he wanted to. As for calling American soldiers baby-killers, he denies ever saying that. He was willing to tell people, Congress, and the press what he had seen while over there. As a soldier himself, I am inclined to accept him at his word that he wanted to get his fellow soldiers home and the war over ASAP. This sounds a lot more like patriotism than treason to me.

I am not sure how the Chinese figure into this, as they were not a signatory to the Paris Peace accord, so presume that you meant North Vietnam.


message 26: by Tess (new)

Tess Roman Will can u chat with me


message 27: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Kerry is hardly an idol. What do you mean by "there."


message 28: by Tess (new)

Tess Roman Lol


message 29: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes I was "there" too, and not too young to serve in Vietnam. And I stand by the Swift-boating reference. The Bush-financed group did an excellent job of spreading lies about Kerry, and accusing him of treason was high on their list.

Kennedy was no saint in continuing the errors of ourFrench predecessors in SouthEast Asia.

And please spare me wild charges about Hilary. She has been scrutinized non-stop since Bill first announced for president when he was governor of Arkansas. All that has ever been shown in years and years and investigation after investigation is that the GOP would rather play politics and run politically based investigations than actually work on improving the country.

Sorry to cut things short, but I have to get to sleep some time. I will check back on things overnight. Hope everyone has a great day.


message 30: by Darwin8u (new)

Darwin8u Ugh.


message 31: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook Will wrote: "Dem presidents seem always to be stuck cleaning up the mess Republican leadership leaves behind, whether it is moral debasement of the Nixon years, the economic freefall and wars that W left, the r..."

You got that right !


message 32: by Will (last edited May 02, 2016 06:55PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes MaryAnn wrote: "My sincerest apologies. I never wanted my comment to escalate to this level. I'm afraid I was trying to phrase everything in past tense ancient history, which I believe I mentioned. Contrary to wha..."
Referring to Hilary and Kerry as traitors is hardly a position that can really be seen as purely historical, or a paragon of civil discourse.


message 33: by Lorna (new) - added it

Lorna Will, thank you for your service and as always for your insightful reviews. I am a fan and will look forward to your next review. Take care!


message 34: by yan (new)

yan good


message 35: by Will (new) - rated it 4 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Lorna. Thanks, Yan.


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