The release of a Bob Woodward book is something of a tradition in politics, and here's how it works: the week before its release, copies are obtained by reporters, who comb through the tome to find zazzy parts of the book to write about, baiting the hook for pundits to gnash their teeth over the odd quote or shiny detail. It's like your book club, if your book club were filled with sozzled megalomaniacs instead of normal people.
In this case, Woodward's new book is called "Obama's Wars" and it is about Obama's wars. But not just the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's about the "wars" within the White House, which explains why it gets so much attention -- everyone in the media believes that "war" is something that primarily affects the relative fortunes of fascinating political insiders, not something that kills and maims soldiers and destroys the homes of children half a world away.
"Obama's Wars" recreates that time in our lives when President Barack Obama was trying to develop a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, working with advisors who were split on what to do. Some wanted Obama to pursue a "light footprint," by drawing down troops and changing the mission to a counter-terrorism mission. Others wanted Obama to commit more resources and troops (like, say, all of them) to an expanded counter-insurgency mission instead. And after much wrangling, Obama decided to "split the baby," by ordering a "surge" of new troops while agreeing to a "conditions-based" drawdown, subject to a timeline.
Of course, this is all basically stuff that you already knew because it was extensively reported in the news. But if you were not alive during that time, or were trapped under a rock without access to a teevee, or if you just cannot absorb information unless it comes constructed in mise-en-scene form by an author who can (and probably did) relate the color and contours of the White House tea service in loving detail, then this book is for you.
Adam Serwer basically predicts that the book will have its intended effect: it will confirm what everybody already thinks about the War in Afghanistan:
To the left, the book apparently confirms the suspicion that the president knew better than to escalate a war he knew couldn't be won for political reasons. The book suggests that the president shares their view that the current situation is intractable, that there is no functional local partner -- the book portrays Afghan President Hamid Karzai as suffering from manic depression -- and that the wisest course of action is to withdraw as soon as possible will be confirmed. According to the summaries of the book, Woodward quotes top advisers Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke saying the decision to escalate troops in advance of a 2011 drawdown doesn't "add up" and "can't work." Obama reportedly told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that "I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars" and that it was in "our national-security interest" to leave as quickly as possible. The ultimate decision is also portrayed as an Obama-esque artificial compromise between Biden's light-footprint strategy and the one the military was offering.
The right will view their impression of Obama as a weak president at odds with the military and uncomfortable with the use of force as vindicated. Obama reportedly "bristled at what he saw as military commanders' attempts to force him into a decision he was not yet comfortable with," namely the addition of more troops. "To ensure that the Pentagon did not reinterpret his decision, Mr. Obama dictated a six-page, single-space "terms sheet" explicitly laying out his troop order and its objectives," according to The New York Times. He became "exasperated" when military officials kept pressing him to alter his ultimate decision.
So, perfect! Serwer also felt like this one quote from the book was going to get a lot of attention: Per Woodward, Obama said, "We can absorb a terrorist attack. We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever... we absorbed it and we are stronger."
There are a lot of ways to interpret those words, apparently! One could read them in reverse order, for example. Or you could hold the book upside down and open to that page and repeatedly pummel yourself in the head until you black out and have hallucinations. I read it as a literal description of what actually happened. The United States did in fact "absorb" a terrorist attack. And the United States did not collapse and fall as a result. In fact, Americans in droves showed up the day after the attacks to donate blood and volunteer and comfort their neighbors and line up on the streets of New York City to cheer as responders from far-flung locales arrived in the city to back up the valiant but beleaguered members of the FDNY.
But what if you are from the "Precious Bodily Fluids" school of thought, like Marc Thiessen? Then you interpret it, like so:
He is effectively saying: an attack is inevitable, we'll do our best to prevent it, but if we get hit again--even on the scale of 9/11--it's really no big deal.
Sure! No big deal! Which is why we're still spending a fortune in a long foreign war. Because that's what people who aren't sweating the consequences of a terrorist attack do, all the time. Of course, Thiessen's job is to take everything he encounters -- quotes from a Woodward book, events in Afghanistan, Philadelphia Eagle's quarterback Kevin Kolb concussion in the Green Bay Packers game -- and tell people that it's evidence that Obama wants Americans to die. Last February, Thiessen said that America was in grave danger because, under Obama, the military was getting too good at killing terrorists.
By the by, here's a Dick Cheney flashback:
We must now focus on the resilience of the system as a whole - an approach that centers on investments that make the system better able to absorb the impact of an event without losing the capacity to function.
I guess I could call that pretty "complacent," as long as I worked the qualifier, "effectively," in there, as my "Get Out Of Logic Free" card.
Meanwhile, others have gone as far as to say that the statement constitutes "inviting" another attack. Now, I could talk about the fact that I've never, ever, in my life, read "we'll do everything we can to prevent it" as an "invitation." I could tell you that it's beyond me why these sorts of comments aren't treated the same way as people who think 9/11 was an "inside job" (why not simply say, "I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you don't literally want America to be destroyed by terrorists?"). I could even point out that when I think of what one might say to "invite an attack," the phrase "Bring it on," comes rivetingly to mind. But, in the spirit of the book, let me set a stage for you:
THE SCENE: A secret terrorist hide out.
TERRORIST HENCHMAN: Good news! The Americans have absorbed our attack, and they are even stronger than before.
KHALID SHEIKH MOHAMMED: Excellent! All is going according to my master plan!
Which is to say that any interpretation of that statement other than the literal one is utterly batty.
But hey, this is exactly what the book was designed to do, so it already appears to be a smash success. It's now time to look forward to Woodward's next book, "The War In Afghanistan Is Costing Us Dearly And Getting Us Nowhere", published by Simon and Schuster, due to be released never.
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