Bob Woodward’s invaluable account of the political machinations behind the Afghan conflict echoes my own experiences inside the British government, says Matt Cavanaghby Matt Cavanagh / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Barack Obama with his defence secretary Robert Gates, who has been a vital bridge between the White House and the military
Obama’s Wars By Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, £20)
Obama’s Wars, the veteran US reporter Bob Woodward’s book on the Afghan conflict, has many flaws. It is overlong, repetitious, and lacks structure, leading some critics to dismiss it as a “notebook dump.” It is insular, mentioning the Afghans only in passing, and Britain and other allies hardly at all. It lacks any feel for the conflict itself, and Woodward has been mocked for writing about an overnight stay in a vast US base as if it was the front line. Yet it is also an invaluable guide to the political processes behind modern warfare.
Part of the problem is the book’s title. For this is a book not about war, but about the workings of the national security machinery: the mix of politicians, political advisers, security officials, generals and admirals who take decisions about war in a modern democracy. Woodward has talked to most of them, and they have been remarkably open with him, even indiscreet. The book’s real value, however, lies not in the indiscretions or particular revelations, but in the laborious and painstaking way that it charts the decision-making process through the course of 2009, as the president, his advisers and the senior military agonise about the way ahead.
Here, the book’s lack of structure is a virtue. The absence of an overarching “narrative” allows the cast to put their case in as unfiltered a manner as a reader is likely to find. As with any insider account, Woodward overemphasises those who give him the most time or the best quotes. But while some critics have perceived a bias towards the White House, and others a bias towards the military, I found it hard to discern either. If anything, Woodward is overly credulous of every powerful player he encounters—but it is this that allows them the chance to put their case.
The result is a gruelling but fascinating read for anyone who is interested in how such decisions are made, not just in America but more widely. And it would be a shame if the book’s insularity put British readers off. This is a book about the British experience too, for essentially the same internal debate played out here over the same period, with the same…