In Partial Defense of Bob Woodward

    Woodward is coming out with a book, parts of which are being run in The Washington Post, called Obama's Wars.  As is the case with Woodward's numerous other books, it's an attempt to lay out some of what has gone on behind-the-scenes insofar as decisions about AfPak and Iraq are concerned.

    I'm well aware of a complaint about Woodward that is offered commonly in at least the progressive blogosphere--that he's a stenographer for the powerful.  He records their versions of what happened, without jumping down their throats and telling them and his audience that they're a bunch of lying, hypocritical, corrupt weasels.  (There's plenty of time for that to happen in other contexts.)

    I think that's an accurate description of what he does.  He doesn't attempt to analyze what he finds out, or subject it to skepticism, and that's the knock on him. 

    He is the printed-word analog to what Larry King has long done on TV.  He lets powerful people speak in their own words.  He'll ask questions.  But he doesn't press so hard as to risk alienating his guests.  He wants them coming back.  And he's very successful at that.  It is left to others to do the analysis and apply the skepticism.

    The point I want to make is that I think there is value in that.  I think of it as kind of a first draft of a first draft of history.  It's at least getting on the record the views of key players.  It's a start.  That's all it's meant to be.  But at least it provides a kicking off point for further questions, probing, reporting, and analysis.  



    Despite that laissez-faire approach he still plays on his reputation as the aggressive journalist that helped bring down Nixon. I'd also say that a lot of journalists seem to do the same thing - with powerful subjects anyway. They'll pound some minor player, but when a real mover and shaker comes on they get very deferential.

    I think people forget how hard it is to top yourself in journalism.  Most stories are not big stories.  Most are not investigative blockbusters.  Even if you're fortunate enough to devote yourself only to investogative pieces they will be of varying cultural importance and will have varying degrees of impact (sometimes not related to how practically "important" the story is.)

    Very few people are going to get one Watergate.  Getting two is too much to hope for, no matter how hard you work.  So Woodward has used his gravitas in pursuit of other, I think worthy, journalistic pursuits.

    I don't recall suggesting that he should top himself, but I do think that he has become entrenched in the MSM machine.

    Damn it, you have said what I say you have said! Or not.

    I completely agree with you.  In one sense, I think it's unfair to reduce Woodward entirely to the role of stenographer.  He does have some news judgment.  But it's also important to have some one who at least understands what's going on to convey, as you say, the first draft to the rest of us.  It's just that the reader has to know they're at a starting point and should probably pursue larger truths on their own or through other writers and reporters who will build on (or tear down) the early take.

    The only thing I can never forgive Woodward for is "Maestro" his tale of Greenspan.  Not because it was wrong.  It was, just as you describe, the immediate, pre-crisis analysis of Greenspan's time at the Fed.  In a way it was useful having read that and then watching what unfolded a few years after it was published.  No, I have to ding him for the story structure.  An entire book that uses quarter and half point short term Federal Fund rates moves as the narrative peg for each chapter!  It's a structure that's an affront to good storytelling.

    Woodward is a conduit for obfuscation and spin of the powerful. The Washington Post is neoconservative propaganda in my opinion. Give me a Seymour Hersh over 50 Woodwards. 

    It makes no difference what the politicians, generals or think tank wonks in Washington, DC, think, plan or say to Woodward, relating to 'Obama's Wars'.  The fate of the AF/PAK region will not be decided in America. So who really cares what someone like Petraeus said yesterday or what he will say tomorrow? He has already backed an expansion of the GWOT to Yemen with a $1.2 billion ante, which I posted about last week. They think this country can afford to continue fighting wars forever.

    The outcome of our decade long conflict will be decided by the Taliban, the Haqquani tribe, in the headquarters and offices of the Pakistan ISI, by corrupt politiciians who remain in Kabul, and by the myriad of power brokers, warlords and drug kingpins who live in the region.  All we are doing is making the powerful richer, and arming them, for the final struggle after we leave.

    Many in the Karzai government, and his own family, hvae already used US taxpayer money to buy expensive homes in Dubai to escape to when we depart.

    I expressed my views on AfPak at the cafe and happen to be largely in agreement with what you write about it. 

    I think what the substantive views of any of us as individuals is not so much the point I am trying to make, however.  And I wasn't trying to make any point about the Washington Post, a newspaper which I've come to have a mostly very low opinion of. 

    A basic premise of successful advocacy to alter a misguided policy is to understand as much as possible about the views and mindset of the key policymakers, as well as the process, which suggests who has more and who has less influence and what the more promising people and places to try to bring about a change of course might be. 

    Woodward's accounts of course can be seriously misleading or incomplete, as can anyone's, even with the advantages brought about by a passage of time. But if there is something on the record, it at least serves as a jumping off point, or frame of reference, for others to pipe in.  Of course there are going to be competing, sometimes antithetical takes on what has happened and how and why on AfPak.  But the ball has to get started somehow.  I think Woodward's stuff helps get the ball started, that's all.  

    If there is anything worthwhile in the Woodward book I will read the whole paragraph that summarizes it all!

    Maybe someone here can recall more details, but I once read that the usual right wing power brokers/corporate oligarchs of the Washington establishment were only too eager to get rid of Nixon, and Woodward's Watergate work may have been simply a means they fully applauded to speed Nixon on his way.

    Nixon did create the EPA, he signed the Endangered Species Act, was President for our 'surrender agreement' to the commies in Vietnam, and deflated the fear mongering over the commies in China. These actions of Nixon were far and away serious affronts to the primacy of big business and to the defense companies, and were almost left leaning radical, no Congress or administration in recent years would ever pass any similarly wide reaching legislation. Woodward may have just been serving the need of the GOP to get rid of a President who was careening off the tracks to the left.

    Shorter, from an account I read elsewhere: Afghanistan wins all its home games.

    Yes.  Vegas ought to start putting out lines on that once word gets out a country is thinking about some big badass operation there.

    NFL and War Lines

    Date & TimeFavoriteLineUnderdog

       Ongoing                   AFGHANISTAN             35                 anyone


    Well, two things about Woodward post-Watergate.

    He will never again have the liberty of doggedly pursuing an overlooked story for weeks and months until it breaks into something much bigger. Since Watergate, any story he is focusing on is, by definition, no longer overlooked. Other journalists will give it attention, and the powers that be will start the protective spinning and the moment they see Woodward on the horizon. 

    More importantly, what Watergate taught Woodward was the value of cultivating highly-placed sources. Mark Felt at the FBI, AKA Deep Throat, made that story for him. Woodward is sticking with what works, which is top sources in official Washington. (There's a moment in Woodward's "Bush at War" series, after he's turned against the official Bush line, when he quotes something that Rumsfeld once said to him at a dinner party at Woodward's house.)

    Woodward is now in the club. The arrangement works to everyone's advantage, and it beats journalism as a way of earning a living. Club rules require that you wear a jacket and tie, and display appropriate discretion. He's down with that.

    True. But he was always in the Club. He was always Yale and Navy, always comfortable with the Club's senior members. He got his Watergate scoop not because he was a daring outsider, but because he was an insider.

    This is a great discussion. Over the years I have heard scores of 'journalists' define their occupation in the same manner as you describe Woodward.

    Kind of a Dragnet, just the facts kind of approach. I am a member of a laudible profession, I remain clean and non judgemental...blah blah blah.

    But you can still feign that squeaky clean approach and still get your own take on things communicated in a code kind of format.

    I know Woodward had had enough of the neocons by his third book. He reports that Cheney was so mad he called Woodward and ended up slamming the phone down on him.

    Of course he could sell more books that way since two thirds of the country had had enough of the bush administration by 2006.


    Anyway, great discussion.

    I read part 1 (of 3), and the beginning of part 2, of the excerpts of Woodward's book in the Post.  I will stipulate, again, what I tried clearly to imply in my original post, that this is Woodward's account and that that should be viewed as a first draft of a first draft of the history, very much subject to skepticism and revision. 

    A few reactions so far:

    1. Obama felt the need, apparently, to get explicit verbal assent to his planned 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.  If memory serves Lincoln did this with his Cabinet, to peg them. 

    2. The question of who is in charge arises.  Obama asked his military people to come up with options and they repeatedly stonewall by giving him one option only, or what Obama saw as narrowly different variations on the same option.  This, after telling them to go back and do it again.  On the account given he clearly is irritated about this, to the point where he feels he has to develop his own strategy.  I find it interesting that he was not more than irritated about it.  It seems to me to be clearly insubordinate conduct by his senior military advisors, notably Mullen.  Mullen does not appear to understand who he is working for.  Obama is obviously frustrated and irritated that Mullen does not understand this, but he seems not to feel as though he has the ability to do much about that other than express his irritation and develop his own plan. 

    3. Biden voiced my dominant thought precisely when he said to Obama before the plan was announced publicly, but following these negotiations with his senior advisors over troop count levels (the military wanted 40K, Biden and his group were pressing for 20K): It's not about the troop count, it's about the strategy. 

    4.  Obama clearly seems to want to go in a more dovish direction, but feels as though he needs unanimous stated agreement from his senior advisors.  This effectively prevents him from doing so.

    5.  Elsewhere on the Post's website coverage of the book and its release, Petraeus is quoted as saying we are going to have to be in Iraq and AfPak for the rest of our lives, probably the rest of our kids' lives.  Which begs asking him the question that is the title of his book: "Tell me how this ends."  Maybe most folks here already knew this was Petraeus' view--I did not.

    6. Obama's concept of what the war is about is going after AQ and also at least some Taliban elements.  On the first, yes, of course.  But AQ is not heavily present in Afghanistan if they are there at all.  It is known, however, that they are in many, many other places.  Those who favor a "police action" approach to combating AQ support going after them wherever they are (which we are also doing, of course).  But this leaves open the question of why the conflict in Afghanistan should be thought of as a "war" at all.  Doesn't the continuing unwillingness to revise that frame publicly (from a "war" to a "police action", although I would recommend coming up with a name that sounds more aggressive than "police action") make it inherently more difficult to avoid getting into Afghanistan with too many troops and too vague and unrealistic a mission, for fear of being charged with "cutting and running", and "losing the war"?  The Obama Administration had long ago ceased referring to a Global War on Terror.  At what point, if any, will there be an effort to explain to the public what kind of a conflict we have an essential national security interest in engaging, and what it will entail?  (essentially an ongoing police action, using a different name than that, in collaboration with as many other countries, especially Arab and Muslim-majority ones, as will join with us)

    About No. 6, Dreamer: The Afghan war has just one remaining aim -- to prop up the guy the West installed, so as not to appear to have lost the war. Viet Nam redux. Unlike the North Vietnamese, the Taliban are ideologically indisposed to offer us a fig-leaf "peace with honor."

    Hamid Karzai is toast without a foreign occupation, and the Taliban have lots of patience, so there is no viable exit strategy. Hence Petraeus is right: absent U.S. defeat, the war can never end. As for "an ongoing police action," how will that do the trick if 130,000 or so troops aren't enough? Especially since all major U.S. allies are set to pull out in 2011. Arab and/or Muslim countries joining the effort? You're kidding, right?

    By police effort, I mean attempts to work with other countries to share intel, arrest, and try members of AQ who are engaged in illegal activities--wherever they are in the world.  Which requires no deployed US troops in Afghanistan or anywhere else.      

    As I write, several ugly (and having little or nothing to do with the book) exchanges going on in comments responding to the 4 reader "reviews" of Obama's Wars published at amazon.  Cheap and lazy hit jobs from Obama-haters is what they are.


    He's looking pretty good about now. 

    I reread this relatively ancient post to see if I'd change any of it now.  I'm not sure if I would.  I haven't read Fear yet and maybe I'll revise my take on Woodward when I do. 

    It sounds as though with Fear, likewise as in the past he was not getting adversarial with people he was interviewing or telling readers what to think, just reporting some really hard to get facts wearing out a lot of shoe leather. 

    With the current crowd, that just happens to be explosive.  Even given all that had already been documented about them.

    to my mind, he's looking real good, super good. All the sticking to his guns on the non-partisan objective thing, all the criticism from the left for past publications that weren't tweaked towards the political, it's paying off big time. He's going down in history as one of the greats and his ex partner Bernstein is gonna be seen as having thrown away a gravitas gift in his youth for political hacking.

    Latest Comments