Afghanistan always seemed like a fine place to make one’s fortune, what with its colorful poppy fields, rich and varied traditions of sculpture and architecture, and snow leopards slinking in and out of mountain caves. Exotic and fun, right? But your reviewer just learned that there’s some kind of war going on over there right now. Even the snow leopards have, en masse, joined death squads. Probably better to travel to Washington and …. try for a job with the Obama administration, maybe? But all they do these days is fight over policy in Afghanistan and address one another as “dick,” according to Bob Woodward’s new guided tour of Presidential Sadness, Obama’s Wars.
Woodward is that rare beast: a newspaper journalist with a brand name known by Regular People, due to his being played by Robert Redford in a movie 35 years ago. He has a reputation for being “the first historian of reality,” or something like that, because he likes to write about White House horror and intrigue while his subjects are still in office. It’s WILD, this method, because he actually gets people to Talk.
He begins Obama’s Wars with a list of “Dramatis Personae,” because this might as well be Henry IV, with Joe Biden as a thin, beardless Falstaff. The characters are mostly members of the “Obama administration,” which is a covert sub-section of ACORN that for whatever reason has control over the Americans and their NATO allies in Afghanistan. Wacky minor characters include bumbling CIA officials, Pentagon bureaucrats (“generals,” they’re sometimes called) and manic depressive Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who spends most of the book in his room, sprawled out on an Afghan rug, writing confessional poems. What’s going on with these people?
They’re having endless Situation Room meetings (from which Wolf Blitzer is confusingly absent) with Power Point slideshows, mostly. Your reviewer would like to say he read this thing carefully, but the minutiae of the meetings and slide shows and memo-writing is hard going. And it’s damn near impossible to keep all the characters straight. Who is “Rahm Emanuel” anyway? Didn’t he quit?
There might even be a problem with writing a book called Obama’s Wars and never saying much about the actual war(s). Woodward does go to Afghanistan for a few minutes to soak up the vibes, but he offers very little in the way of vividness, or insight into how these White House slideshows are shaping things on the ground. THOUGH IN FAIRNESS, he does mention marauding CIA paramilitaries that enjoy Murder in the night.
The only Big Conclusion you can really draw from this book is that no one has a clue what to do about Afghanistan. Biden has his ideas (focus on routing Al Qaeda, don’t set extravagant goals), military brass have their ideas (a more ambitious blizzard of death), and plenty of other people have their own suggestions. Obama seems to be splitting the difference between all of them (is that possible, mathematically? We’re not sure) and crossing his fingers. None of the ideas seems particularly realistic, which is to say that things seem more or less hopeless.
Let’s see, are there any Haw-Haw Funny revelations in this book?
HMMMMM … according to B-Wood, Barack Obama and Colin Powell sometimes gather in shadowy corners and whisper to each other about how lame the Pentagon kids are.
“You don’t have to be put up with this,” said Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs [oh, THAT Colin Powell]. “You’re the commander in chief. These guys work for you. Because they’re unanimous in their advice doesn’t make it right. There are other generals.”
“BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH, etc.,” Powell continues, because he hates America’s Troops.
There’s also this weird incident with Very Important Diplomat and weird person Richard Holbrooke:
“Mr. President, I want to ask you one favor,” Holbrooke had said… “Would you do me the great favor of calling me Richard, for my wife’s sake?” It was her preference. She disliked the name “Dick,” which the president had been using.
At [Holbrooke’s coronation] ceremony, Obama referred to Holbrooke as “Richard.” But later, the president told others that he found the request highly unusual and even strange. Holbrooke was horrified when he learned that his request — which he had repeated to no one — had been circulated by the president.
Elsewhere in this thing: Hillary Clinton comes up with imaginative plans for getting Pakistanis to like us (fund development and infrastructure, which we can afford to do because that stuff isn’t really welcome in America anymore), and the Prez goes on Jay Leno, which adds to the all-engulfing gloom. Biden dislikes Dick Holbrooke, the generals don’t trust Obama, Obama feels pressured by the generals, everyone hates each other, etc.
And that’s pretty much it.
Bob Woodward is a serviceable, though not great, writer. He tries, though. Here he is going for the poignant and elegiac note:
About noon on Veterans Day, November 11, the president and his wife, Michelle, stepped out into a cold rain at Arlington Cemetery. They walked around Section 60, where the dead from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are buried. One writer christened it “the saddest acre in America.” Obama moved down the aisles of small white headstones to greet the relatives and friends of those lost in battle. Heavy raindrops gathered in his hair, on his face, and on his black overcoat. New graves were being dug in the damp earth.
As they are still being dug today. Woodward should write a sequel to this book where he tours Afghanistan asking one-armed villagers, “SO, what are you: Team Biden or Team McChrystal?”
Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 464 pages, $15.00.
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