Bob Woodward Still Relevant?

Dan Drezner asks, "Has Bob Woodward jumped the shark?" My snarky response is that he did that in Bob Casey's hospital room.

Dan Drezner asks, “Has Bob Woodward jumped the shark?

My snarky response is that he did that in Bob Casey’s hospital room.   But Dan’s making a different point:

What used to be his bread and butter — the political and bureaucratic machinations of presidential administrations — is no longer his exclusive province.  Beyond the Washington Post and New York Times, media outlets as varied as Politico, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, and the New Yorker now generate monthly weekly hourly revelations that Woodward used to be able to hoard for his books.  As my old dissertation advisor used to say, “is there anything new here?”

The major “revelation” of Woodward’s latest tome, Obama’s Wars, is apparently that there was substantial dissent on the White House team on the matter of Afghanistan.   Did anyone not already know that?

But Blake Hounshell makes a pretty strong case that the details matter.

Get a load of some of these nuggets:

  • Neither Richard Holbrooke, the special advisor for Afghanistan and Pakistan, nor retired Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the White House “war czar,” believe in the current U.S. war strategy. Woodward quotes Holbrooke saying flatly “it can’t work”; Lute apparently said that the Afghan strategy review didn’t “add up” to the course the president ultimately chose.  For his part, Vice President Joe Biden is quoted calling Holbrooke “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met.”
  • Afghan President Hamid Karzai has apparently been diagnosed with manic depression and is treating his condition with drugs (though perhaps not opium, as suggested some months back by the ousted U.N. diplomat Peter Galbraith). Woodward quotes Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador, as saying, “He’s on his meds, he’s off his meds.” That’ll go over well in Kabul.
  • Axelrod apparently asked Obama, “How could you trust Hillary?” when Clinton was being considered to be secretary of state.
  • In comments that fall into the category of “true but not a good idea to say,” Obama tells Woodward, “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.”
  • Plenty of people have the knives out for national security advisor Jim Jones, who in turn rips  unnamed presidential aides as “the water bugs,” “the Politburo,” “the Mafia,” and “the campaign set.” I’m not sure what he means by this or to whom he’s referring, but I have some educated guesses.
  • Defense Secretary Bob Gates apparently doesn’t like Jones’s deputy, Tom Donilon, and thinks he would be a “disaster” as national security advisor. Gates was offended by a remark Donilon made about a general who isn’t named in the book. Meanwhile, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright don’t trust one other — Cartwright worked closely with Biden on a proposal for a smaller Afghan surge force than was ultimately chosen.
  • Gen. David Petraeus, the man now charged with saving Obama’s ass in Afghanistan, thinks White House advisor David Axelrod is “a complete spin doctor.” Petraeus also told his aides in May that the administration was “[expletive] with the wrong guy,” though it’s not clear what the context was.

None of this shocks me.  Holbrooke is an exceedingly controversial figure.  Jim Jones has been the subject of stab-in-the-back leaks since the earliest days of the administration.   And the military, generally, doesn’t have much use for politicos.

But, then, I’m a cynical political scientist who follows this stuff on a routine basis.  Revelations of how the sausage gets made are always embarrassing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Woodward is a master at writing headline grabbing books like this. It still amazes me that he’s able to get the access he does after the number of times those books have caused heartburn for whatever Administration happened to be in power at the time.


  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I was toying with the idea of posting on Obama’s Wars but as I see that you and Doug have beat me to the punch I’ll hold off.


    If the reports of the book’s contents are to be believed, I think they support several points.  First, the war in Afghanistan is now, indeed, Obama’s war.  He supported it in 2002, ran on the platform of prosecuting the war in Afghanistan more enthusiastically in 2006 through 2008, and has made good on his promises in 2009 and 2010.  That he may have unrealistic views of what can be achieved does not alter this.


    We are still left with the question of whether the President sincerely believes as he has said that the war in Afghanistan is in our vital national interests.  I choose to believe that he is.   I disagree with it but I think he has been sincere.


    The second interesting thing from the book is that it neatly dispatches the notion that President Obama has been a captive of the Pentagon in his policy WRT Afghanistan.  Indeed, the assertion is very nearly the reverse.


    Third, so much for technocracy.  Unless “technocracy” does not mean rule by experts but rather rule by a handful of Ivy-educated lawyers.  In one sense I guess there’s nothing wrong with this.  Elections do have consequences as people never tire of reminding me and we still do have civilian rule here.  It seems to me that it makes the case that the problem with the previous administration was that it was full of poorly-informed, ideologically motivated yahoos harder to make with a straight face.  We still have poorly informed ideologically motivated yahoos, they’re just a different crop of poorly informed ideologically motivated yahoos.

  3. Jack says:

    Regarding the comments by Dave Schuler above on poorly informed ideologically motivated yahoos, was it Douglas Adams who wrote something along the lines of “Anyone willing to do what it takes to become President should on no account be allowed to take the job.”???

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    That wisecrack has been attributed to Gore Vidal.


    However, when I was a kid they told me that anyone could grow up to become president.  The last several administrations have begun to convince me they were right.

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    It’s not exactly news that there was intense debate on the way forward on Afghanistan last winter or that Richard Holbrooke is a bit of a big head. This is a tough call with all kinds of international and domestic ramifications but at bottom I’ve no doubt whatever the president wants to quit the place. It’s certainly not “Obama’s War” he didn’t take the decision to invade the place and he hasn’t dicked around for 7years while whatever remote chance we had of making a success of this went down the tubes. He’s now landed with the task of cleaning up the mess. To me he seems to be taking a measured and sensible approach to dealing with it and the fact that partisans who think we can just pack up our bags and leave or alternatively that we stay there forever until there’s a MacDonalds on every mountain are foaming at the mouth in their respective corners is the best evidence of it!