Review (Retired Reader): Obama’s Wars

5 Star, Decision-Making & Decision-Support, Empire, Sorrows, Hubris, Blowback, Executive (Partisan Failure, Reform), Force Structure (Military), Insurgency & Revolution, Intelligence (Government/Secret), Intelligence (Public), Military & Pentagon Power, Misinformation & Propaganda, Politics, Power (Pathologies & Utilization)
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5.0 out of 5 stars No Exit!, October 5, 2010

By Retired Reader (New Mexico) – See all my reviews

Bob Woodward

1. The focus of this book is the complicated process that led to President Obama to increase the level of U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan in support of the so-called “surge strategy.” Like all of Woodward’s previous books this book is apolitical and contains minimal analysis and commentary. It is a chronological compilation of quotes and paraphrases that Woodward has selected to demonstrate how the decision making process in this case actually worked.  Woodward is a respected journalist and has a track record of accurately reflecting White House Deliberations.

2. Woodward makes it clear that President Obama’s concerns with Afghanistan so often articulated in his run for the Presidency were genuine and unfortunately well founded. The military and political situations in Afghanistan were rapidly deteriorating to the point of endangering the U.S. position there.  The President wanted to formulate a new strategy that would neutralize the threats posed by al Qaeda still operating on the Afghan-Pakistan Border and transform Afghanistan into stable country that would not serve as a host to al Qaeda. To do this, he sought to obtain at least three or four strategic alternatives that he could choose from rather than simply going with the military centric strategy option that was already on the table.

3. The military centric option was favored by Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff (JCS), General Petreaus (USA) Chief of CentCom, and General McChrystal (USA).  General McChrystal strongly argued that the Afghan security forces could be quickly brought up to such a level (400,000!) and that an all American Force of 40,000 troops (four brigades) could easily seize, hold, and transfer key population centers over to Afghan Security Forces. Although his optimism was at variance with actual conditions in Afghanistan, Admiral Mullen and General Petreaus supported McChrystal’s argument.

4. Still President Obama wanted to be able to review other options before committing so many troops to a failing state like Afghanistan.  He also was aware that any Afghan solution would by necessity involve a Pakistani solution. The all powerful Pakistani Military had a very complex relationship with the Taliban movement and, it was suspected, al Qaeda. He therefore sought to develop a strategy that would recognize this.

5. Prior to beginning his search for alternative solutions to the Afghanistan problem the president asked Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute to draft a Review summarizing the current situation in Afghanistan and providing some strategic insights. Riedel is a thirty year veteran of CIA, a real expert on the Near East and Central Asia, and dates from the halcyon days when intelligence analysis was still considered a profession. His review followed and expanded points he had already established in his book, The Search for al Qaeda (Brookings Institute, 2008). The Review was especially useful in clearly articulating that solving Afghanistan’s problems necessarily involved solving Pakistan’s as well.  In Riedel’s opinion the center piece of any strategy should be the elimination of al Qaeda from its border strongholds in the Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs).  Riedel also pointed out that it would take a long term military-civil effort to turn Afghanistan into a viable nation-state. All of the National Security Council (NSC) principals, including the military, agreed that Riedel’s Review was the most accurate information on Afghanistan, al Qaeda, and Pakistan.

6. In reading Woodward’s account it is clear that Pakistan has its own high complex agenda in Afghanistan, driven not by U.S. concerns, but by fear of India. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) appears to be playing a very dangerous game of supporting the Taliban (usually), tolerating al Qaeda yet still trying to cooperate where feasible with CIA. The ISI has one primary target and that is India; it appears that ISI considers Afghanistan just another strategic pawn, as is the U.S., in its life and death game against India. The Pakistani Military share this world view and indeed General Kayani, Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army told Woodward as much.  President Zardari of Pakistan appears weak and ineffectual, serving at the sufferance of the military.

7. Remarkably Riedel’s Review is a both timely and accurate summary of the situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) yet it was developed from largely unclassified sources. Unremarkably, the U.S. Military while agreeing that the Review was an accurate situation report chose to ignore it because it did not fit into their pre-determined surge strategy which simply transferred the superficially successful Iraqi Surge model to Afghanistan.

8. Besides the Riedel Review, the NSC had remarkably little intelligence to help them in their search for alternative strategies. A close reading of Woodward’s account reveals why.

9. The simple fact of the matter is that in a reprise of the last forty years, the U.S. Intelligence System has been able to produce very effective tactical intelligence in support of military operations (i.e. locations of individuals and groups, tactical level threats etc.), but completely unable to produce strategic intelligence. Repeatedly in this book NSC participants express surprise that almost nothing is known of the organizational structures, funding, and level of Pakistani involvement in al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other affiliated groups. There is also no evidence in this book that anybody in the NSC took it upon themselves to review a reasonably extensive literature on the ethnography of Afghanistan to help clarify just what the Taliban and other Afghan groups actually are after.

10. In the end, the unrealistic strategic plan advanced by General McChrystal won out because the military simply refused to come up with any other and, in the absence of strategic intelligence nobody else could come up with a politically acceptable alternative.

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Review: State of Denial–Bush at War Part III

5 Star, Asymmetric, Cyber, Hacking, Odd War, Atrocities & Genocide, Complexity & Catastrophe, Congress (Failure, Reform), Crime (Corporate), Crime (Government), Democracy, Diplomacy, Economics, Empire, Sorrows, Hubris, Blowback, Executive (Partisan Failure, Reform), Force Structure (Military), Impeachment & Treason, Insurgency & Revolution, Intelligence (Government/Secret), Iraq, Justice (Failure, Reform), Military & Pentagon Power, Misinformation & Propaganda, Power (Pathologies & Utilization), Priorities, Secrecy & Politics of Secrecy, Security (Including Immigration), Terrorism & Jihad, Threats (Emerging & Perennial), True Cost & Toxicity, Voices Lost (Indigenous, Gender, Poor, Marginalized), War & Face of Battle
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5.0 out of 5 stars Stake in the Heart of the W Presidency

October 4, 2006

Bob Woodward

Here are the highlights I drew out that make this book extraordinary and worth reading even if it leaves one with a political hang-over:

1) The Federal Government is broken, and was made worse by a President who knew nothing of foreign policy, a Vice President who closed down the inter-agency policy system, and a Secretary of Defense who was both contemptuous of the uniformed military and held in contempt by Bush Senior.

2) My opinion of the Secretary of Defense actually went UP with this book. Rumsfeld has clearly been well-intentioned, has clearly asked the right questions, but he let his arrogance get away from him. Given a choice between Admiral Clark, a truth-telling transformative person, and General Myers, an acquiescent warrior diminished to senior clerk, Rumsfeld made the right choice for his management style, and the wrong choice for the good people in our Armed Forces. I *like* Rumsfeld's Anchor Chain letter as it has been described, and wish it had been included as an Appendix. Rumsfeld got the control he wanted, but he sacrificed honest early warning in so doing.

3) This book also improves my opinion of the Saudis and especially Prince Bandar. While I have no tolerance for Saudi Royalty–the kind of corrupt debauched individuals that make Congressman Foley look like a vestal virgin–the Saudis did understand that Bush's unleashing of Israel was disastrous, and they did an excellent job of shaking up the President. Unfortunately, they could not overcome Dick Cheney, who should resign or be impeached for gross dereliction of duty and usurpation of Presidential authority.

4) Tenet's visit to Rice on 10 July is ably recounted and adds to the picture. It joins others books, notably James Risen's “State of War,” “Hubris,” FASCO” and “The End of Iraq in presenting a compelling picture of a dysfunctional National Security Advisor who is now a dysfunctional Secretary of State–and Rumsfeld still won't return her phone calls…..

5) The author briefly touches on how CIA shined in the early days of the Afghan War (see my reviews of “JAWBREAKER” and “First In” for more details) but uses this to show that Rumsfeld took the impotence of the Pentagon, and the success of CIA, personally.

6) The author also tries to resurrect Tenet somewhat, documenting the grave reservations that Tenet had about Iraq, but Tenet, like Colin Powell, failed to speak truth to power or to the people, and failed the Nation.

7) Rumsfeld recognized the importance of stabilization and reconstruction (and got an excellent report from the Defense Science Board, not mentioned by this book, on Transitions to and From Hostilities) but he vacillated terribly and ultimately failed to be serious on this critical point.

8) This book *destroys* the Defense Intelligence Agency, which some say should be burned to the ground to allow a fresh start. The author is brutal in recounting the struggles of General Marks to get DIA to provide any useful information on the alleged 946 WMD sites in Iraq. DIA comes across as completely derelict bean counters with no clue how to support operators going in harms way, i.e. create actionable intelligence.

9) Despite WMD as the alleged basis for war, the military had no unit trained, equipped, or organized to find and neutralize WMD sites. A 400 person artillery unit was pressed into this fearful service.

10) General Jay Garner is the star of this story. My face lit up as I read of his accomplishments, insights, and good judgments. He and General Abizaid both understood that allowing the Iraqi Army to stay in being with some honor was the key to transitioning to peace, and it is clearly documented that Dick Cheney was the undoing of the peace. It was Dick Cheney that deprived Jay Garner of Tom Warrick from State, the man who has overseen and understood a year of planning on making the peace, and it was Dick Cheney that fired Garner and put Paul Bremer, idiot pro-consult in place. Garner clearly understood a month before the war–while there was still time to call it off–that the peace was un-winable absent major changes, but he could not get traction within the ideological fantasy land of the Vice Presidency.

11) Apart from State, one military officer, Colonel Steve Peterson, clearly foresaw the insurgency strategy, but his prescient warnings were dismissed by the larger group.

12) General Tommy Franks called Doug Feith “the dumbest bastard on the planet,” –Feith deprived Garner of critical information and promoted Chalabi as the man with all the answers.

13) The author covers the 2004 election night very ably, but at this point the book started to turn my stomach. The author appears oblivious to the fact that the Ohio election was stolen through the manipulation of 12 voting districts, loading good machines in the pro-Bush areas, putting too few machines in the pro-Kerry areas, and in some cases, documented by Rolling Stone, actually not counting Kerry votes at all on the tallies. Ohio has yet to pay, as does Florida, for its treasonous betrayal of the Republic.

Today I issued a press release pointing toward the Pakistan treaty creating the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan as a safehaven for the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the definitive end–loss of–the war on terror, which is a tactic, not an enemy. As Colin Gray says in “Modern Strategy,” time is the one strategic variable that cannot be bought nor replaced. As a moderate Republican I dare to suggest that resigning prior to the November elections, in favor of John McCain, Gary Hart, and a Coalition Cabinet, might be the one thing that keeps the moderate Republican incumbents, and the honest Democrats–those that respect the need for a balanced budget–in place to provide for continuity in Congress, which must *be* the first branch of government rather than slaves to the party line.

It's crunch time. This book is the last straw. The American people are now *very* angry.

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Review: Bush at War

4 Star, Empire, Sorrows, Hubris, Blowback, Executive (Partisan Failure, Reform), Intelligence (Government/Secret), Iraq, Military & Pentagon Power, Power (Pathologies & Utilization)

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4.0 out of 5 stars If You Favor Impeachment Over Iraq, Start Here….,

July 12, 2003
Bob Woodward
Edit of 22 Dec 07 to add links. We now know that Dick Cheney has hijacked the Presidency and subverted Article 1 of the Constitution for eight years and all the way back to the Ford Administration. The question begs to be asked: why on earth are the Democratic contenders ignoring the need for both Electoral Reform, and impeachment of Dick Cheney?


As America confronts the very real probability that the Administration manipulated and distorted and fabricated intelligence in order to go to war against Iraq, and as calls rise for the impeachment of the President and the Vice President (the one naive, the other conniving), this book takes on added value–Bob Woodward has done a superb job of documenting both the “keystone cops” nature of the Administration's “strategic deliberations”, and the very specific manner in which Paul Wolfowitz (too controversial to be Secretary of Defense but a power in his own right) guided the Bush team toward a war on Iraq as a “solution” to problems they could not deal with directly, to wit, the war on terrorism.

There is an Alice in Wonderland quality to this book–or more properly stated, to the conversations that are quoted among the principals. Their wandering short-hand conversations, the degree to which the President is mis-led about our capabilities, the inability of the Secretary of Defense to answer a direct question, always having to go back to his office for an answer–the entire book is, as one reviewer suggests, practically a recount of a handful of recollections about scattered conversations, as if the center of the world were one room in the White House, and nothing outside those walls really mattered. It is also somewhat revisionist–as I recall from published news at the time, all of the principals wanted to delay the taking of Kabul until the spring, and it was President Putin of Russia, speaking directly to President Bush, who made the case, based on his superior intelligence sources on the ground, for how quickly Kabul would fall, leading to the US acceptance of rapid advances by the Afghan warlords. The absence of this essential and openly known fact casts doubt on the entire process of writing the book, and how information was researched and selected for inclusion.

There are, however, some major gems that make a careful reading of this book very worthwhile and I list them for consideration by other readers:

1) The Directorate of Intelligence does not appear as a listed player–CIA special operations rather than CIA analysis appears to have been the DCI's best card to play;

2) The clandestine service, as Dewey Claridge notes in concluding his “Spy for All Seasons,” died in the 1990's, with only 12 case officers in one year's class–the book misrepresents the increase from 12 to 120 as stellar–it was actually a return to the norm before a series of mediocre leaders destroyed the Directorate of Operations;

3) The CIA had been “after” bin Laden for five years prior to 9-11, the DCI even “declaring war” on him, to zero effect. Worse, post 9-11 investigations determined that bin Laden had been planning the 9-11 attack for two years without any substantive hint being collected by U.S. intelligence–and at the end of the book, Rumsfeld reflects on how the three major surprises against the U.S. prior to 9-11 not only happened without U.S. intelligence detecting them, but we did not learn of them for five to thirteen years *after the fact* (page 320);

4) Presidential-level communications stink–the Secretary of State could not talk to the President when flying back for seven hours from Latin America, and the National Security Advisor could not get a reliable secure connection to the President from her car right in Washington, D.C.

5) The Secret Service idea of security for Presidential relatives in a time of crisis is to take them to the nearest Federal Center–the kind that got blown up in Oklahoma.

6) Throughout the discussions, it was clear to the principals that the U.S. military is designed to find and destroy fixed physical targets with obvious signatures; it cannot do–it is incompetent at–finding mobile targets, whether vehicles or individuals (cf. page 174)…and of course as General Clark documented in his book, and David Halberstam repeats in his most recent tome, and as the principals learned again vis a vis Afghanistan, the U.S. Army does not do mountains.

There are three remarkable aspects of this story, only one even remotely hinted at in the book: we failed to get bin Laden. The CIA went to Afghanistan with the right orders: “bin Laden dead or alive.” They promptly forgot their orders and settled for spending $70M to play soldier. The two stories that are not told in this book, but are clearly apparent: 1) Russia saved the day, both for the CIA and for the Department of Defense; and 2) Saudi Arabia never came up as a serious problem that needed to be dealt with sooner than later.

Finally, and this only became clear to me after the early months of 2003 when the obsession of a few people in the Administration brought the world to a crisis over Iraq, the book provides really excellent documentation of how a tiny minority, led by Paul Wolfowitz, basically pushed the President to treat Iraq as an alternative to substantive action on global terrorists networks, and the book documents how the uniformed leadership of the Pentagon clearly opposed this line of thinking that is unsupported by intelligence, either on Iraq, or on the relative threat of Iraq (not imminent) in relation to many other threats that are both more imminent and more costly if not addressed now.

This is a useful book, worthy of reading, but the real story with all the details will not be known for some time. However, in the aftermath of the failed effort in Iraq, and the clear and compelling evidence that the American people and Congress were deceived about the Iraq threat, this book has an added luster, an added value, and become a “must read.”

Other books (see also my lists, one on Evaluating Dick Cheney, the other on The Case for Impeachment).
Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency
Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It
Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders
The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track (Institutions of American Democracy)
Independents Day: Awakening the American Spirit
Day of Reckoning: How Hubris, Ideology, and Greed Are Tearing America Apart
The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All
A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save Our Country by Bringing Democracy to Life
Society's Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People

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Review: Maestro–Greenspan’s Fed And The American Boom

5 Star, Banks, Fed, Money, & Concentrated Wealth, Biography & Memoirs

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5.0 out of 5 stars Unconventional Wisdom Triumphs in Unconventional Times,

November 16, 2000
Bob Woodward
I am quite taken with this book, which at 234 pages is “just right” and well crafted and edited to tell an important story. This is a story about applied intelligence in the finest sense of the word. It is a story about a man well-versed in traditional economic research, traditional models, traditional assumptions about the marketplace, who was put into the most important position in the global financial system at just the right time. His intuition allowed him to detect unexplained changes in productivity and to direct new lines of research that helped persuade more conventional authorities to follow his strategy. This is also a story about a uniquely successful partnership between a Republican central banker and a Democratic President-the very heart of the story centers around Greenspan's ability to persuade a very smart President that deficit reduction was the critical ingredient for a long-term restoration of American prosperity. Aided by an equally smart Secretary of the Treasury, Rubin, it was the President's initiative to reduce the deficit by over $140 billion dollars that allowed all else to follow. There is a clear message here for those who would reduce taxes before finishing the job of eliminating the deficit. As a professional intelligence officer, I am very very impressed by the author's recounting of how Greenspan actually “does” the job of intelligence collection and analysis at his level-the Central Intelligence Agency could learn a great deal from this man. The integration of constant (every fifteen minutes) monitoring of key indicators, the preparation of detailed research and statistics reports, and-by far the most important element-the continuous cycle of direct telephone calls and personal meetings across all sectors of the economy and around the globe, define what must be the most efficient and effective and valuable directed intelligence operation in the world-and one that does not steal the information it needs! There are a number of observations throughout the book that are helpful at a strategic level: 1) deficit reduction is the single best thing any President can do-that enables the Fed to be effective; 2) we forget so quickly how desperate the American economy was in the late 1980's-in a volatile world it would be all too easy to enter a recession or have a major financial panic; 3) structured decision-making is extremely dependent on the models and the data-Greenspan's place in history is assured because he had the intellect and the patience and the gut instincts to realize that the data was incomplete or too aggregated and the modeling assumptions were dated and no longer sufficient to plot the course of the new economy; 4) the psychology of the marketplace is at least as important as the reality, and is likely to be hurt by loose-cannon White House elements with good intentions but out of bounds; 5) even the so-called best and brightest in any Presidential administration will categorize new ideas they do not understand as “incoherent if not idiotic”, as Greenspan's emerging new ideas were labeled by the top Treasury economists; 6) the concept of wealth redistribution fails to understand that even if $1 trillion from the 225 richest people in the world were redistributed to the poorest of the earth, this would only give them $1 a day for a year-Greenspan's focus is on underlying structural changes and the advancement of capitalism such that wealth can be created for the poor on a sustained basis; and 7) there will always be wild cards, such as the Savings & Loan crisis, the LTCM (Long Term Capital Management) crisis, and the Mexico crisis, that require a financial management or central banking network able to capitalize on personal relationships and deep knowledge to find impromptu solutions. On the latter note, it makes one realize that in an increasingly volatile marketplace, there should probably be much stricter limits on “leveraged” actions, where the majority of the money for gambling on the stock market or in the bond market-as much as 95% of the money-is borrowed and therefore likely to be defaulted if the wrong bet is placed. There is nothing in the book regarding any steps that Greenspan has taken or is considering in order to bring added stability to the marketplace. If I have one criticism of this otherwise superb book, a book that sheds light on many aspects of the Fed and its Chairman, it is that there is no hint here of what Greenspan has learned that might lead him to suggest legislative or regulatory changes intended to improve public transparency of key economic transactions, limitations on risk intended to prevent one rogue elephant (e.g. LTCM) from bringing down the market, and so on. I would have liked to see a summation, even a two-page appendix, on the “before” and “after” economic models that Greenspan helped to change, and also some sense in the conclusion of what needs to be changed to keep future market crises within the bounds that can be managed by the Fed-Greenspan clearly has broad shoulders and a broad mind, but he can't carry the load forever and this book fails to focus on what changes are needed to institutionalize the Greenspan wisdom.
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