Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars Reviewed

Speed-read Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars. Hillary's buck-passing. Petraeus' disobedience. Obama's fury. Bryan Curtis on the best moments. Plus, the most likely sources—and what's conspicuously left out.

Barack Obama and David Petraeus walk down a runway at Baghdad International Airport on July 21, 2008. (Photo: Ssg. Lorie Jewell / AP Photo)

Obama’s Wars, ace reporter Bob Woodward’s first book about the administration, comes out September 27. We got it early. The biggest revelations below:

What is Obama’s Wars about? It’s about policy making. Or, rather, a political argument. The argument is: What is America going to do in Afghanistan, and how can it do it?

That sounds awfully…bureaucratic. It is. You might expect Woodward’s narrative to zip from the White House to the Tora Bora, but just about the entire book takes place in D.C. meeting rooms. As chroniclers of the Afghanistan War go, Woodward is the anti-Sebastian Junger.

We know Obama committed 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan last December, and promised to start the withdrawal in 18 months. What mystery is Woodward trying to solve? He’s trying to figure out whether Obama got rolled by the military.

Did he? Woodward does not exactly say. But he demonstrates convincingly that the men in uniform—that would be David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, and Mike Mullen, along with Bob Gates—dangled very few battle plans in front of Obama, and used bureaucratic jujitsu to make sure he didn’t see others. For example, Obama never had a fully fleshed-out proposal for sending fewer than 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan. And even the final proposal he crafted himself, lowering the military’s demands a tad. As Petraeus says, after being informed of a slight from Pennsylvania Avenue, “They’re fucking with the wrong guy.”

How’d they get away with it? In addition to being master bureaucratic infighters, the generals are genius P.R. men. Woodward recounts scene after scene of Petraeus talking to the press when he’s specifically been ordered to stand down. Once, just before a Situation Room meeting with Obama, he made a surprise CNN appearance from the White House briefing room.

What’s my news headline when it comes out September 27? “AIDES DON’T BUY AFGHAN PLAN.”

Holbrooke says the war plan “won’t work.” Petraeus, who’s now running the Afghan effort, says, “You have to recognize that I don’t think you can win this war. I think you keep fighting.” ( See The Times for more.)

Did Woodward snag an Obama interview? He got an hour and fifteen minutes in July.

And how does Obama come off? In the book’s opening pages, which take place around the 2008 election, he seems beleaguered. “You know, I’ve been worried about losing this election,” Obama tells an intelligence chief. “After talking to you guys, I’m worried about winning this election.”

“We were dealt a very bad hand,” he says later. Obama seems finally to be seeing the dog’s breakfast he inherited.

Leslie H. Gelb: Burned By Woodward’s FireCritics who accuse Obama of being Spock-like with his emotions will find plenty of fodder here. “[John] Podesta was not sure that Obama felt anything, especially in his gut,” Woodward writes. Obama is portrayed as a deliberate consensus-seeker, insistent on hearing months of proposals. In that sense, he probably has more patience than the reader.

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We know the Woodward method. Those who tattle get better treatment. Who wins Obama’s Wars? James Jones, the national security advisor, is treated with kid gloves. You might remember Jones as the guy one of Stanley McChrystal’s aides called a “clown” in that infamous Rolling Stone article. But here Jones is smart, determined, and sensitive to bureaucratic reverberations. He’s allowed to blast his enemies more than he is blasted—the sign you’ve made it in Woodward book.

Joe Biden also makes out like a bandit. In one of the book’s very best scenes, he’s shown confronting Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, at a state dinner. Biden smothers Karzai with contempt disguised as diplomatic grace, right in front of the guy’s entire cabinet. That account—presumably supplied by Biden—gives the veep weight that his media portrait has thus far lacked.

Other likely babblers: Lindsey Graham, Bob Gates, and Leon Panetta.

Which Obamaite comes off like a real tool?Poor Dick Holbrooke. His turn as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan was to be a diplomatic victory lap. “It wasn’t until well into the Obama presidency,” Woodward writes, “that Holbrooke learned definitively how much the president didn’t care for him.” In a revealing anecdote, Holbrooke asks Obama to call him “Richard” rather than “Dick.” For some reason, Obama finds the request highly bizarre and, in Woodward’s telling, repeats the story of Holbrooke’s pathetic plea around the White House.

Does anyone go the full McChrystal and napalm their career? For his studly portrayal, James Jones comes pretty close. He blasts Rahm and Co. as the “water bugs,” the Mafia,” and the “Politburo.” “There are too many senior aides around the president,” Jones says to somebody.

Jones thinks Rahm is a weenie who hides behind Obama’s opinions. He thinks Gates is always positioning himself to be on the side of the victors. He feels the administration killed his friendship with Gen. Anthony Zinni. I could go on. You doubt Jones is long for the administration.

You haven’t said much about Hillary. She must have hidden under a desk when Woodward went to Foggy Bottom. Perhaps she’s still smarting from The Choice. There’s one killer scene: While the senior staff is formulating the war policy, she tells Obama, “Mr. President, the dilemma you face…” Everybody in the room notices the pronoun.

There are some other principals who barely made the book. Rahm graces us with only a few cuss words. Michelle is missing, along with Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, Arne Duncan, Jon Favreau, and anybody else who wasn’t directly involved in Obama’s foreign policy.

It sounds like Obama’s Wars is a tiny keyhole into Obamaland. It’s narrower still. Woodward is so focused on the White House dealings that he never backs up and asks the obvious question: How did Obama get himself committed to the Afghan War to begin with? A lot of us suspected that during the campaign, Obama’s support of a ramp-up was thrown in to make him look hawkish as he advocated for drawing down in Iraq. I never thought he was particularly convincing, anyway. Yet Woodward treats it as a fait accompli that Obama would pursue it.

Ironically, that’s the one question it would have been easiest to answer.

Other complaints?Outside of the Woodward cocktail of unnamed sources? The heart of the book takes place during several meetings in 2009. As you might imagine when politicians and bureaucrats get together, things get discussed. And discussed. And discussed some more. Some of it gets rather turgid, even given the remarkable ability of the participants to recreate exact bits of dialogue. Unlike some of Woodward’s Bush volumes, it feels like a book written for history rather than for reading.

How about a few more Woodward smart bombs?1. The CIA has a secret, 3,000-person army in Afghanistan.

2. There was a threat of a Somali terrorist plot at Obama’s inaugural.

3. David Axelrod said Obama picked North Carolina to win the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament for political reasons. (He might have been kidding.)

4. Mike Mullen emasculates David Petraeus in front of the president when the latter tries to circulate a memo.

5. Obama to Lindsey Graham, on why he installed a deadline for Afghanistan: “I have to say that. I can’t let this be a war without end, and I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

One last bit of cattiness, please. Woodward gets his hands on a secret document prepared by Stanley McChrystal. It results in a big exclusive on the front page of The Washington Post on September 21, 2009. Then Woodward adds, “Within a few minutes, The New York Times all but copied the story almost paragraph for paragraph.”

By the way, how’d you get your hands on the book? I walked into a New York bookstore, saw it placed prematurely on the shelf, and paid $30 for it. Take that, Woodward.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at