Bruce Kent

Obama's Wars

The Inside Story

Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster 2010

PP 441 Photographs

Bruce Kent 745 words

Even though this book is really only about one war—Afghanistan—it is a very revealing story. More than that, it is also an astonishing one for reasons that the author would not have had in mind.

The dysfunctional relationship between the White House and the Pentagon, which this book reveals, is quite scary. These are the same people who make nuclear weapon decisions.

The book is a blow by blow, meeting by meeting, account of the way in which, during 2009, a policy was agreed which resulted in Obama's statement about Afghanistan of November 2009. He announced then, after all these discussions, that there would be a troop increase (not as large as the Pentagon wanted) and, most significantly, the start of a military withdrawal in July 2011.

There are number of surprises. Since Afghanistan is meant to be a UN/NATO operation no one seems to have thought of consulting their so-called partners in the run-up to this decision. Ban Ki- Moon does not even appear in the index. British forces get the briefest mention. Even so, they get more than is given to those of the other countries with troops deployed.

Solutions to problems are overwhelmingly framed in military terms. "The man who is equipped only with a hammer sees every problem as a nail" rings true on every page. Obama, with Vietnam in mind, is clearly desperate to get out of the Afghanistan swamp. He is however squeezed at every point by the military. His Vice-President, Joe Biden, has perhaps the most original ideas but he gets marginalized.

There is no evidence that any one realises that the United States is not thought, by the rest of the world, to be God"s gift to world order. No one asks why terrorists take to terrorism or if insurgents have some reason for insurging - if I may invent a word.

At one point even an intelligent man like the President himself says "We don't seek world domination or occupation". The 1000 US bases and military facilities strung around the world tell a different story to most of us.

US connivance in the occupation of Palestine or the slaughter in Iraq, as reasons for Muslim hostility, gets no mention. Palestine itself is not even in the index. It is indeed revealing that Pakistan, with its eyes on India, has played such an ambivalent role in the whole conflict.

In a rather Readers Digest style the author describes in detail all the various lengthy top level meetings, that went on before the November announcement. I had to wonder how Obama sleeps at night and when he has time to think about the other pressing problems on his mind.

Thankfully the book starts with a helpful list of all the participants, military, diplomatic and White House. The reader is left with no idea where the lines of authority actually run. Loyalty to the President, much trumpeted, is actually in short supply. Time and again the military come back to challenge his views with amendments, alternative suggestions and even media contradictions. This habit is not just a military weakness. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defence, tells a dinner gathering in Washington at which President Karzai is present, that "We are not leaving Afghanistan prematurely… fact we are not leaving at all." This was exactly the opposite of the Obama position which all had agreed to support. General Petraeus, the new commander in Afghanistan, says more privately, "This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives'.

This is a very important book which ought to be studied carefully. It is not the details of the discussions that matter or the pecking order of in-fights amongst the military - of which there are plenty. What it reveals is how the most powerful country in the world in military terms actually makes up its mind on critical international issues. The United Nations is a distant side show, as are the rest of us. NATO, an arm of US policy, is simply a means of disguising the reality.

The book has, too, a sad taste of tragedy. A decent man, suddenly given great world power, who knows where he wants to go, is impeded, but not yet brought to a halt, by forces, military and political, which are more powerful than he is.