To you, my humble reader, I'll admit that I've read it as well. Tuesday's mail delivered my copy of Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars and I spent the past couple of days reading it. After all the talk, what else was I supposed to do? I could write yet another review saying that it makes for a nice read (which it does), but it might be more worthwhile to add some thoughts to the reviews that appeared in related blogs (Inks Spots here, Abu Muqawama here and the AEI Center for Defense Studies here).
First, there is the title. Obama's Wars suggests that the book deals with more than a single war. Though this book deals with Afghanistan only, the plural seems to stem from Obama's trouble with the national security team and the Pentagon in particular. The president holds Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in high esteem, but the Pentagon's bureaucracy is another matter. The book gives a fine depiction of the growing frustration the president feels toward the Pentagon which he asked repeatedly to provide him with a set of options. But all the Pentagon comes up with are options that really aren't any. Bottom line: there is the 40.000 surge in troops McChrystal advocated and thats about it. Pressed on the matter the Pentagon develops two alternative options, one with an even larger troop influx (yeah thats not going to happen) and another with a minor 20.000 counterterrorism surge (though the military kept saying that a counterterrorism surge without counterinsurgency wouldn't be working, so back we are at 40.000). Plus all the infighting between Admiral Mullen and General Petraeus and narcissism of some players (Holbrooke) and the frustration is all too understandable.
Second there is the debate. Waiting for options, the debate seems to be nudging along without clear directions for months. But what struck me most about the debate was this: They were spending all this time debating what a "defeat" of the Taleban acutally meant. In the end, they agreed upon avoiding the term altogether, but what got lost along the way was a real debate on what "winning" would have meant and perhaps entailed.
Third, there is Karzai. After the book was released there was quite a debate on whether or not Karzai was having a depression. But that really doesn't matter (I find his apparent taste for conspiracy theories more alarming). One way or the other Karzai clearly emerges as part of the problem rather than the solution. From the very beginning of Obama's first term the administration was sending signals to Kabul that he needed to get his act together, enhance legitimacy of his government, stop cutting deals that positioned people as regional governors who were clearly unfit to govern, actually delivering basic services and fighting corruption. But nothing changed. Instead he lost basically all legitimacy after rigging last year's election, though Petraeus, McChrystal and others had pointed out that for success of a counterinsurgency-strategy government legitimacy was crucial if not indispensable (after all this war is about outgoverning the enemy). So: why did they refrain from tossing him overboard?
Fourth, at some point Obama is being compared to Spock. His cool analysis is indeed a compelling feature described in the book and he does come off as a commander in chief. But the book clearly shows a president that hates not having options. He simply wants to be able to adapt, align and re-align. All-in simply isn't his style of governing. But that can be (and often is) mistaken for a lack in leadership and resolve. And as the military brass pointed out during the debates, resolve still is some sort of a force-multiplier. Though an all-in might provide more options in the future, Obama is not the president likely to make such a decision. Here finally is a stark contrast to his predecessor, who would have agreed to a revised strategy and an all-in more easily. Both styles have its virtues but in war, the Bush approach is more decisive and decisiveness is something called for in just about any war. Put differently: Bush accepted being a wartime president and acted like it (remember the National Security Strategy he put forward where it said: this is a wartime-NSS?). Obama clearly struggles with that. And thats the final impression: This struggle isn't over yet.