BY MATTHEW HERBERT
First, an admission. I’m addicted to Bob Woodward’s big, thick books about current affairs. You can buy most of them for a penny online. Sure, you have to pay three or four bucks for shipping, but I enjoy the small delusion of thinking I’m only paying one U.S. cent. So much history, almost for free.
I’m aware of Woodward’s limitations. As Christopher Hitchens once said, Woodward often functions as a mere stenographer to the rich and powerful. They speak, he writes, the dutiful court historian.
Joan Didion went even farther, castigating Woodward for being morally autistic. He simply couldn’t apprehend the monstrousness of pernicious acts so long as they were being related to him by a powerful man sitting agreeably for an interview. Woodward just wrote them all down, fact after deplorable fact. You must read Didion’s (in)famous 1996 review of Woodward here, in the New York Review of Books. I took my own measure of Woodward’s deferential side in my review of Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987. (It may very well be the only Kurt Vonnegut-inspired review of a Bob Woodward book on the internet. Go ahead–treat yourself!)
But I still like Woodward immensely, if “like” is the right word. There is manifest value in having a technically competent journalist abroad in the land with a wide interest in our society, in-depth knowledge of Beltway politics, and excellent access to powerful figures. What Woodward ends up writing in his big, thick books is the fabled first draft of history that we entrust to journalists. An English-reading Martian newly arrived, wishing to get a grip on who we are, could profitably begin with a dozen or so of Woodward’s books.
But still, I was disappointed with Woodward’s 2010 book Obama’s Wars. This is partly because I was prepared to be disappointed. I actually read the book in order to be disappointed. This will take a moment to explain. Barrack Obama is a political hero of mine, and I wanted to understand how I could continue to admire him despite two despicable decisions he made as president.
First, he saved the rich and powerful of Wall Street with the bank bailout of 2009. With no trace of shame, Obama arranged for the poor and middle class to pay off the wealthy so they could continue doing their jobs of, well, being wealthy. This move was, and remains, morally profane. Don’t get me started.
Obama also gave in to the allure of killing that tests all war-time presidents. Here was a man who campaigned on a promise to reverse war-time powers engineered by George W. Bush that he believed violated due process–primarily GTMO and the Patriot Act. We cannot fight a just war, Obama the candidate argued, if we claim tyrannical powers like the authority to spy on Americans without a court order or imprison whomever we please on a no-man’s land bereft of law.
But presented with the opportunity to step up drone strikes on suspected terrorists around the globe, Obama conveniently forgot the legal distinctions that had so fired his conscience as a candidate. His drone force targeted several Americans for assassination, and he even boasted he had gotten “pretty good at killing people.” The same man who earlier could not countenance the wiretapping of U.S. citizens without a court order somehow found it acceptable to kill them with rockets. In this way Obama well and truly earned Cornel West’s condemnation as a loyal servant of the neoliberal power order he pretended to defy.
Clearly politics is a bizarre game. Obama did these horrible things, but I still regarded him on the whole as a decent man who tried to govern through reason. I still do.
All presidents fail, and a surprising number of them fail at exactly the thing they say they will do for the country. Reagan ran on the promise to shrink government, reduce the budget, and eliminate the deficit. Ask any Reaganite, and they will say these were pillars of his presidency. Yet he immediately and dramatically did the opposite of all three of them. His admirers, though, recall him fondly for the principles he espoused and probably still advocate them.
So I cracked open Obama’s Wars already aware of the large-scale hypocrisy that I guess we all show when it comes to our political heroes. We like who we like. I suppose I will always love Obama for his ability to preach noble principles of law and governance to us, the heirs of a slave country founded in blood and human bondage. Even his worst decisions as president can’t dim the brilliance and magnanimity he embodied for me. At his best, Obama offered–yes–hope that we will someday, in James Baldwin’s words, achieve our country.
But back to Woodward. His book about Obama is limited in all the usual ways, and it showcases one glaring flaw to boot.
Obama’s foreign policy was all about context. He thought Bush Junior had skewed our entire international agenda to Iraq, the alleged epicenter of the Islamic terrorism we were fighting around the world. Obama thought this view was wrong in two ways, one obvious, one subtle.
First, Iraq was not the epicenter of Islamic terrorism that our global war was supposedly designed to combat. If that war had an epicenter, it was still in Afghanistan. We had misspent trillions of dollars, thrown away thousands of American lives, amped up new terrorist groups, empowered Iran, alienated old allies, and drastically worsened the security of the entire Middle East, all for the wrong war. Our war-fighting focus needed to be on Afghanistan.
Second, as becomes clear in Obama’s Wars, Obama believed, unlike Bush, that America was not existentially threatened by Islamic terrorism. The sooner we reset our global strategy to reflect this assumption, he thought, the sooner we would restore our power and credibility. This is the deepest insight Woodward pries out of Obama. Some of the thinking behind it appears on page 363. Woodward reports:
During my Oval Office interview with the president, Obama volunteered some extended thoughts about terrorism: “I said very early on, as a senator, and continued to believe as a presidential candidate and now as president, that we can absorb a terrorist attack.”
I was surprised.
“We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever, that ever took place on our soil, we absorbed it and we are stronger. This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient.”
This is possibly the most important thing Obama believes about America, because it means we should still try to be a country of peace. Woodward, though, does exactly nothing with this revelation.
The entirety of Obama’s Wars is about the narrow process carried out by the national security apparatus of shifting military effort back to Afghanistan. It’s riveting Belway drama, but it barely touches on Obama’s dramatic expansion of drone warfare, our seminal involvement in Yemen’s civil war, or the quiet but drastic increase of direct action by Special Operations forces around the world. It gives no account of Obama’s (mostly failed) effort to close GTMO–a cornerstone campaign promise–or his high-level public diplomacy in the Muslim world to salvage America’s image as a freedom-loving democracy that defends human rights.
All of Obama’s war-fighting decisions were shaped by these issues, but Woodward ignores them. He also fails entirely to consider Obama’s “Asian pivot.” The pivot was a broad package of foreign policy initiatives aimed at improving trade with Asia and taking some of the oxygen out of the global war on terrorism. It was conceived as much to show what America was not doing as what it was doing on the global stage. A huge part of what Obama wanted to accomplish with the pivot was to demonstrate that America had moved on from 9/11 and that we cared more for cultivating trans-pacific ties in trade, culture, and technology than in stoking the old tribalisms of the Middle East.
Woodward’s big, thick book, in other words, should have been 300 pages longer than it was. Had he taken the time to put Obama’s thinking into strategic context–and to consider all of the president’s wars, not just the ones in Afghanistan and the Beltway–the job might have stretched out another year. Then Woodward could have written a proper ending to his book, namely in May 2011, when U.S. Special Forces killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. But instead of coming to an end, Woodward just stops writing, something teachers have been telling me since the seventh grade not to do.
Luckily, though, all we have to do is wait for his next big, thick book.