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Obama's Wars [Hardcover] by Bob Woodward: Book Review

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“Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” — Romans 16:17 (NKJV)

Every leader values having subordinates who quickly, effectively, and eagerly obey without complaining once a decision has been made. In Obama’s Wars, you can see that the president’s selections of top appointees mostly didn’t include seeking out such people. It’s not surprising that when it came to deciding whether to surge troop levels in Afghanistan that the people involved followed their own agendas, rather than the president’s. Bob Woodward was able to gather so much evidence about the process from participants that they might as well have invited him into all of the meetings in the first place. It’s a disturbing level of “disclosure” about what are supposed to be secret topics.

Because of concerns about increasing terrorist threats to the United States, everyone involved felt the urge to do what they knew how to do: Send more troops to Afghanistan. After reading this book, you’ll wish that they spent as much time on improving ways to track down and stop terrorists on their way to North America from al Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia rather than on killing as many Taliban as possible.

The ultimate decision is simply a sop to the military leaders, not a practical plan to accomplish anything. It reminded me of the methods being used to reduce unemployment: Spend trillions without having a clear idea of what the benefit is because a worse result seems unacceptable. If some “experts” with credentials can supply a rationale, run with that fig leaf and spend, spend, spend. While that’s fine when it comes to money, you have to wonder about its relevance when lives and safety are at stake. It feels like Vietnam all over again to me. No one wants to “lose” a war . . . even if the war’s original mission never was a very good idea.

I was particularly discouraged to see how little real thinking went on in the decision. It was just a lot of wrangling over preexisting positions that were based more on “hot air” than on facts and solid ideas.

During the Bush years, the decision would have just gone forward backing up the military. In this case, it’s hard to see that such an “in-depth” policy review added much to the process. It felt more like reading about a moot court competition than good decision making by top minds.

As for the book, Bob Woodward stays a little too removed in his comments. For too much of the book, he operates more like a court reporter than as a journalist who takes the news and explains what it means.

I came away with a heightened appreciation for the sacrifices and dedication of those who put boots on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere. These brave troops deserve better leadership in government and in the Pentagon.

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