My Attempted Book Review – Obama’s Wars

8 10 2010

Before I get into my review, I’m going to warn you that it’s not, strictly speaking, my thing. My cousin reviews books and authors a lot on her blog, but she is pursuing her MFA in creative fiction from Fairfield University and knows the technical components which distinguish a good book from a pile of dung with a dust jacket. Alas, she is not writing this review, I am. I apologize in advance.

The first thing that becomes clear when you start reading Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward’s latest foray inside the Oval Office, is that there was a lot of cooperation from the administration. An exposé this is not. President Obama even sat for an on the record interview with Woodward. Quotes from that interview, which appears to have been conducted at the end of this process, are interspersed throughout the book. This is also not a light read by any stretch of the imagination. It’s packed with facts and figures. At 380 pages (hardcover version) I figured it would take me a day or so to read – it took five and then another day to review it. I liked it, but I like policy stuff. If you’re looking for suspense and fast-paced action, pick up some Tom Clancy. If you’re looking for some insight as to how military actions are decided upon in the Obama White House, this is the book for you.

This book is not going to make you like or hate any of the people in it if you don’t already but it does bring them down from their senior staff pedestals and humanizes them all a bit – some more than others. It also shows some people in a manner they aren’t usually seen. Joe Biden, the goofy, gaffe-prone Vice President comes across as a lot smarter than he’s usually given credit for being. General Petraeus, in addition to being an exemplary military man, is also quite the politician and knows how to get his friends in the Senate to make his case when he can’t. The mistakes made in Vietnam are never far from any of their minds and neither is politics – either the 2008 presidential race or the 2010 mid-terms. It’s omnipresent. The book also casts a harsh light on the situation in Afghanistan – just how bad things were over there, how much of the problem is in Pakistan, and the problems we face with our allies in those two countries. If you take one thing away from Obama’s Wars, it is that essentially “pausing” the conflict in Afghan was a huge mistake that left us in a very bad way.

I liked the book, but I’m a bit of a policy geek – well, I’m actually just a bit of a geek in general. If you to know what went on in the Situation Room that lead to 30,000 troops being sent to Afghanistan, it’s right here. It’s not action-packed, but it is what happened.



4 responses

9 10 2010
A.J. O'Connell

I don’t think you’re giving yourself much credit Nancy. This is a good book review. As someone who isn’t a policy nerd, I appreciated your insights. And as a journalist, I was happy to see that you point out, at the beginning of your post, that this is not an exposé. Nice work.

28 11 2010

I’ve been meaning to say thank you for a while now. I appreciate your educated assessment.

21 11 2010

Great review and I agree with you. I also agree with the commenter above me- don’t sell yourself short- from what I have seen here and over at my blog you are as sharp as they come so no need to apologize for anything!

I am stunned at just how much access they gave Woodward but of course the same could be said of Bush. As I read some of the passages I was stunned that some people were saying what they were in front of Woodward, particularly with respect to the political aspects of the Afghan War.

I’ll admit I wasn’t a Secretary Gates fan going into it but after reading it I am more convinced he’s gaming the POTUS. The job of the Secy of Defense is not to push his own personal agenda or to rubber stamp every military whim but rather to provide sound advice and serve as the clear line of demarcation between the civilian and military leadership- at least that’s my take on the job. Gates seems to be behind every bad Afghan policy decision and the person that has received the most bad press, Joe Biden, seems to be the one person that had it right for the get-go in that he understood COIN can’t work with an Afghan government that stole an election, is totally corrupt and playing both sides. It’s also clear that he understands that nation-building in that country is a losing proposition because it wasn’t very “built” prior to our getting there.

I’m conflicted about how Hillary was portrayed. She comes across as overly-political and very hawkish. Whether that is indeed the case, I don’t know- with books like these that rely on a combination of face-to-face interviews, personal recollections and outright gossip, it’s really hard to tell. I think it’s interesting that she never sat down with Woodward.

28 11 2010

Thank you, Stacy. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

Bob Woodward did have a lot of access, but this isn’t the first time he’s been set loose in the halls of powerful places. I have yet to read them, but he wrote two books about the inner workings of the Clinton administration and a whopping four on Dubya and Co. I find it interesting that one of the reporters who expose Watergate, the scandal that eventually forced Richard Nixon to resign in disgrace, is now given VIP access to the president and his closest advisors and cabinet appointees.

In regards to the Secretary of State being portrayed as overtly political, there is a page long segment – page 222 in the hardcover version – where Woodward highlights the distrust between the Obama people and the Hillary people in the administration and how everyone reads more into what she says. The statement in question is “… the dilemma you face …” by the way – something that doesn’t exactly sound like a challenge and he notes the “you” that raised eyebrows (specifically those of Richard Holbrooke and Robert Gibbs) had been paraphrased by others. If she’s scrutinized so much by the others in these meetings, the information he gained in whatever interviews he did in which people discussed her might have been skewed depending on whose campaign they were involved with previously. The same could be the case with her hawkishness, though she’s always been more hawkish than Obama. the amount of attention paid to any difference of opinion she has with the President might make it seem to those watching so closely that them difference is greater than it is in reality. That’s all conjecture, but it seems pretty likely to me. It’s the downside of creating a team of rivals.

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