Everybody – which is to say, everybody who works in the Washington media – is talking about this Bob Woodward book, Obama's Wars, that went on sale this week. Everybody in the Washington media always talks about every new Bob Woodward book. Once, as a young man, his reporting helped bring down a president. Having thus made his name, he’s spent the interceding decades selling it out, franchising WOODWARD!-branded ventures in Oval Office access journalism. He is to presidential exposés what Ray Kroc is to hamburgers. Woodward’s books have the same effect as a Kroc-created Big Mac. You get hungry; you see one; you consume it; it never quite satisfies. And you wonder whether you’d have ever been so hungry for one if it wasn’t hawked in your face on every street corner.
That's not to say that, in the process of interviewing very important people about their very important work, Woodward doesn't back into a truth or two. It's just that those truths rarely lie where his readers expect them to. Take, for but one example, the dilemma a president faces in tolerating – much less fostering – military dissent. This is the crux of the stormy faux-Victorian treatment Woodward gives Barack Obama’s administration in the new book: that, amid the flailing characters and grade-school rivalries in the West Wing, the Pentagon has been pulling the strings on our nation’s war policy, and Barack Obama’s been helpless to do much about it. Defense Secretary Bob Gates and his assembled generals and admirals, Woodward tells us breathlessly, pulled some form of “bureaucratic jujitsu” to secure a troop escalation in Afghanistan. This supposed phenomenon we now call Obama vs. the Generals, or the Petraeus Syndrome, or the Fourth Branch.
Think about this for a second, because it's not a revelation that flouts the conventional wisdom. It is the conventional wisdom, the fast-food burger that everyone hungers for and gets fat on. The wisdom, taken to its extreme, is this: Barack Obama, Democratic president, conciliator, hopey-changey guy, is a wilting lily in the shadow of a bunch of tougher, meaner, gun-toting, pushup-doing generals. It reifies so many false instincts that burrow in the American gut: that all military overseers think alike – deviously. That military dissent is always an act of insubordination. That a left-of-center president can't handle said “insubordination.”
In short, Bob Woodward paints a velvety portrait of the commander in chief with Hindenberg and Ludendorff penciled in behind him, shoving sabers into his back. It couldn't be that the president values dissent, diversity of opinion, minority reports, or tough talk in his decision-making corps. It’s not that he wants to participate in a reality-based community that was lacking in the George Bush-Tommy Franks civil-military relationship. It’s that the brass got one up on him.
My first observation is: So what? Of course defense secretaries, generals, and admirals – having spent their lives ascending to a point where their decisions could matter to a president – do everything possible to influence that president. In this, they’re no different from any congressman, lobbyist, or angry letter-writer from Withlacoochee, Florida. Ours is a nation of warring factions. See: Federalist Papers, The.
My second observation is: Woodward, and most of his readers in the media, don’t really give a hoot what this means for America’s foreign policy or moral standing. They only care about what it says politically about the president. Is he a "weak" leader or a "strong" one? Is he "effective" or not? The political supplants the moral, and by God, it hardly ever meets up with the practical, for the practical would ask two questions:
- Exactly how strong, how effective, would you expect any elected leader to be when he’s inherited an economic sinkhole, a recalcitrant aging white populace, and two wars in which “victory” is only mentioned, even by hawks, in scare quotes?
- Even if a president could overcome the above pressures, how could he ever go against a conventional wisdom – again, propagated by Woodward, his literary consumers, and presidents from time immemorial – that the president will do what his commanders recommend that he do...a wisdom developed in direct contradiction of the US principle of civilian control over the military? A wisdom developed wholly for domestic political consumption, to signify that a president “stands behind” the troops?
No matter. Politics is the winning paradigm. Hence the lede of The Guardian’s Woodward story:
Barack Obama was forced into a major damage-limitation exercise today after a new book by veteran investigative reporter Bob Woodward painted a startling portrait of the strained relations between the White House and top US generals.
Note that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are a stage for the drama, the president and generals merely players. The metacontext – how will this hurt the president’s political prospects? – becomes the primary text. The play’s the thing. The wars? The nations? They have their entrances and exits. But the central drama goes on, and on, and on.
And in this sick genre, no one’s a more-celebrated dramatist than Bob Woodward. Having once told a solemn and sorry story of power gone amok, he’s relied on the same plot devices ever since, and the American polity’s gotten a little dumber and deafer for it, enthralled by electoral shiny things while ignoring the rot of politics and mainstream media.
And yet so strong is his hold that, compelled to answer Woodward, I’ve dwelled on him for 900 words. I too, am regrettably a part of the rot. Who knows? Perhaps in his next tell-all, I’ll show up in a Greek chorus. Or perhaps writing that sentence grossly overestimates my own significance to the conventional wisdom. For the sake of true wisdom, I hope the latter is the case.