Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars"

I do not intend to write a book review of Bob Woodward's latest "Obama's Wars".  I'll leave it with an observation that it is a typically, deeply interesting book by a man who gets the most powerful people in Washington to sing like birds before someone else tells their story for them.  Anyone who loves DC inside chat will love this book.

I do however, have a couple of thoughts on ten of the people who figure prominently in this book, and I'll include in each assessment my thoughts on the extent to which they cooperated with Woodward in the writing of this book.

1.  Hillary Clinton--Secretary Clinton comes across in this book as wise, influential and unafraid to speak her mind.  Her gravitas and independence seem to bother everyone in the President's political circle, without bothering the President himself.  Of all the major characters in this play (except the President himself), it appears to me that Secretary Clinton cooperated with Woodward least of all. 

2.  Robert Gates--Secretary Gates is portrayed in this book much like many of us who follow defense issues have come to know--inscrutable, bureaucratically nimble, and well-liked by the President.  Gates does a good job of negotiating the dual roles of military advocate and member of the President's Cabinet.  He is thoughtful and a bit of a Mandarin.  I believe he basically told Woodward what he'd already said in public, little in the way of good information or "dirt" on anyone else.

3.  Jim Jones--National Security Adviser Jim Jones (retired 4 star Marine) does not fare well is this treatment.  It is clear that he was not one of the insiders, and the civilian/political types set out from the beginning to marginalize his influence with the President.  Jones was subjected to a withering DC based whispering campaign about his working hours, his dedication to the job, etc--and it appears he decided to use Woodward's book as a means to gain some measure of revenge.  Those who whispered earlier are heard from here, as is Jones--who appears to have been one of Woodward's most willing sources.  Jones cannot possibly serve much longer in his present capacity.

4.  David Petraeus--Speaking of willing sources.....whatever else David Petraeus is, he is a shameless self-promoter. His ride to the top on the wave of COIN theory appears to have left him in the "good with a hammer, everything looks like a nail" category--as he appears constitutionally unable to consider other strategies for Afghanistan.   Brilliantly crafting the media's image of himself, Petraeus is revealed in this book as vain and calculating.  This is no mean feat, as it is also clear that he cooperated openly with Woodward on this project--which indicates to me that there were plenty of other people willing to share their less than positive portraits of the General.  That the President saw fit to appoint him to lead the Afghanistan effort when McChrystal self-immolated, speaks volumes to the President's self-confidence.  In an almost Lincolnian way, Obama--by putting Petraeus in position to win another triumph--is telling him to get the job done, I'll deal with your rising star later.

5.  Mike Mullen--the single most disappointing figure in this book.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was deficient in his duties on several fronts.  1)  He did not provide the President with a "range" of military options for the prosecution of the War in Afghanistan.  He consistently came forward with a single basic approach (COIN), with nuanced implementations thereof.  The President repeatedly asked for more options, and Mullen did not provide them (see discussion of General Cartwright below).  He made up his mind what he thought the best way forward was, and that's what he gave the President.  His obligation was to ALSO fully develop options that he was not in favor of, and then discuss their pros and cons.  This he did not do.  2)  He did not represent the views of the other Joint Chiefs.  There was is a vignette in the book where the President gathers all the JCS for a meeting, and comes away impressed with the views of General Conway and General Casey--views which had not made their way to the President previously.  Mullen, Petraeus and eventually McChrystal singled up on one way forward and that's what Mullen advocated.  3) He did not stand up to the political types around the President who were clearly interested in politically expedient solutions, and this includes standing up to the President himself.  While I am critical of ADM Mullen for not providing the President with a range of MILITARY options--it was clear that the political types were looking for options that were ABIDINGLY POLITICAL; that is, objectives, victory, etc seemed to play lesser roles to keeping coalitions together, party loyalty, etc.  ADM Mullen has no obligation to provide "politically expedient" advice.  He is to render his best military advice.  At some point, he should have stated in an NSC meeting that "while I understand you are disappointed with the range of military options I've brought you, if you are looking for options that reflect political calculations, you will not get them from me.  It is up to you, Mr. President, to weigh the military options against your own political calculations.  That is a process best carried out in consultation with your political advisers.  I will go back to the Pentagon and bring you a wider range of "military" options for prosecuting this war.  If my mandate includes coming back to your with politically palatable options, then I believe you should look for a new man in my job."  Mullen clearly cooperated with Woodward, and others clearly cooperated to paint him as ineffective and obstinate.

6.  Hoss Cartwright--The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (who Woodward refers to in the book--probably from a source not necessarily kind to Cartwright--as "Obama's favorite general") receives the best depiction of any of the major characters in this book.  He stood up to the Chairman, who directed him not to bring a "Counterterrorism" based strategy forward, and he worked well with the Vice President and other national security officials to put together something other than a pre-baked COIN strategy.  Cartwright carried out his duties as he knew them to be, in an honorable and forthright fashion.  There is clearly no love lost between Cartwright and Mullen.  Cartwright appears to have cooperated modestly in this effort, though his inputs do tend to emphasize his independence from the Chairman.

7.  Richard Holbrooke--one of the most famous leakers in all of Washington, Holbrooke gets his comeuppance in this work--as he is consistently portrayed as out of touch, without influence and lost in a Vietnam haze (he began his State Department career as a Foreign Service Officer in Vietnam).  His cooperation is evident in the book--but so is that of others who see him as a hindrance to the process.  This book does nothing to dissuade me from my suspicion that it was he (Holbrooke) who leaked the McChyrstal plan to the Washington Post.

8.  Joe Biden--while those on the inside clearly believe the Vice President to be a bit on the verbose side, I come away impressed with his determination to make sure that President received good political and military advice, and I remain convinced that his "counter-terrorism" approach would have been a better fit for this conflict at this time.  Biden cooperated liberally with Woodward.

9.  Dennis Blair--Blair's fall from grace after the "Christmas Skivvy Bomber" episode always left me a bit unsatisfied, as the man I (very poorly) knew was not the bumbler he was portrayed in the media to be.  This book goes a long way toward helping Blair recover his reputation, in that it seems he was never really well-liked by the President, and that he simply did not mesh with the politicals who surrounded him (especially Rahm Emmanuel).  Blair was circumspect of Mullen and his approach, and he tried to work with him to stretch himself.  When the Skivvy-bomber issue hit, there seemed to be a quick decision in the White House to blame it on analysts and low-level functionaries--but Blair made it clear that it was a systemic and a leadership issue--which the President then affixed to Blair.  Blair appears to have cooperated somewhat with Woodward, and I was pleasantly surprised that there did not appear to be more abuse heaped upon him.

10.  Barack Obama--The portrayal of the President is a generally positive one--I can't recall having read a single devastatingly negative comment about the President in this book (other than Vice President Cheney's "dithering" about the Afghanistan decision comment, which was made publicly)--which could be a sign that he did not warrant any, or it could be a sign of author bias.  The President seemed to demand a logical and thorough decision making process, and he appeared to be engaged, educated, and in charge.  He was however, operating moreso as a political figure in the NSC meetings than he was as Commander-in-Chief.  Careful not to reveal his political cards, it was clear that his frustrations with the options given were driven by electoral time-lines and their impact on other domestic legislation.  I don't fault him for this--he's a political figure with a number of policies and programs to balance.  I do however, strain to find any evidence in this book of a Presidential will to "win" this conflict, or even to see it in terms that can be described as "success oriented".   

Read the book.  It is fascinating, and it will challenge assumptions you may have made about some of the people you read about in the news each day.

Cross-posted at Information Dissemination

1 comment:

BigFred said...

You have hit the big time with a mention at Spencer Ackerma's Attackerman blog.

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