Bob Woodward – one of the journalists who exposed the Watergate scandal – is without equivalent in Britain. With the possible exception of Andrew Rawnsley (and we’ll have to wait to see how he does with the Coalition), no-one gets the kind of access that makes you feel ‘in the room’ in the way that Woodward does. After his incredible trilogy on Bush’s administration, now he’s writing about Barack Obama.
Obama’s Wars documents the struggle between the President and his military over the best strategy in Afghanistan. The military, backed up by the noisy Republicans in opposition, are arguing for a ‘protect the population’ counter-insurgency approach based on large numbers of troops. It worked in Iraq with David Petraeus’ surge, it can work in Afghanistan.
On the other side of the debate is Vice-President Joe Biden, arguing for a “counter-terrorism strategy”: small groups of mobile “Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams” attacking terrorist targets, and largely ignoring the Taliban.
Obama sits between the two sides, listening to the arguments and asking sceptical questions. This is a striking contrast to Woodward’s portrayal of Bush – which records President Bush taking a kind of Chairman approach, trusting his team to get on with things, and avoiding detail and not asking difficult questions. It’s more like the Clinton approach George Stephanopoulos describes in All Too Human (a great Washington Book which provided much of the inspiration for the West Wing).
In the end Obama decides a full ‘protect the population’ strategy would require too many soldiers, and it’s best to focus on Al-Qaeda. The strategy he decides on is more limited: specifically not aiming to ‘defeat’ the Taliban, merely to ‘disrupt’ and ‘degrade’ it.
The remarkable part of the book comes once Obama has decided this limited strategy. Woodward shows in incredible difficulties Obama has getting the military to understand and sign up to it. The end of the book finds him “right down in the weeds”, dictating directly to a secretary, battling with Ministry of Defence redrafts.
CONCLUSION: Good, though it doesn’t quite have the Tom Clancey pace of some of his others.
PS: The most chilling moment is when Woodward recounts a meeting in 2007 between the CIA chief and Pakistan President Zadari. The discussion is about the controversial predator drones that have killed civilians in the North West Territories of the country. The CIA chief is explaining the effort to Al-Qaeda targets when Zardari interrupts him, “Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”