Bob Woodward Meet… Bob Woodward
The Forgotten Role the Bestselling Author Played in Sandbagging the President
know the endpoint of the story: another bestseller for Bob Woodward, in
this case about a president sandbagged by his own high command and
administration officials at one another’s throats over an inherited war
gone wrong. But where did the story actually begin? Well, here’s the
strange thing: in a sense, Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars,
which focuses heavily on an administration review of Afghan war policy
in the fall of 2009, begins with... Woodward. Of course -- thank
heavens for American media amnesia -- amid all the attention his book is
getting, no one seems to recall that part of the tale.
Here it is: President Obama got sandbagged by the leaked release of what became known as “the McChrystal plan,” a call by his war commander in the field General Stanley McChrystal (and assumedly the man above him, then-Centcom Commander General David Petraeus) for a 40,000-troop counterinsurgency “surge.” As it happened, Bob Woodward, with his Washington Post reporter hat on, not his bestselling author one, was assumedly the recipient of that judiciously leaked plan from a still-unknown figure, generally suspected of being in or close to the military. On September 21, 2009, Woodward was the one who then framed the story, writing the first stern front-page piece about the needs of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Its headline laid out, from that moment on, the president’s options: “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure’” And its first paragraph went this way: “The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan warns in an urgent, confidential assessment of the war that he needs more forces within the next year and bluntly states that without them, the eight-year conflict ‘will likely result in failure,’ according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post.”
The frustration of a commander-in-chief backed into a corner by his own generals, the angry backbiting Woodward reportedly reveals in his book, all of it was, at least in part, a product of that leak and how it played out. In other words, looked at a certain way, Woodward facilitated the manufacture of the subject for his own bestseller. A nifty trick for Washington’s leading stenographer.
The set of leaks -- how appropriate for Woodward -- that were the drumbeat of publicity for the new book over the last week also offered a classic reminder of just how limited inside-the-Beltway policy options invariably turn out to be (no matter how fierce the debate about them). As one Washington Post piece put it: “[T]he only options that were seriously considered in the White House involved 30,000 to 40,000 more troops.” And in the way he channeled and framed the McChrystal-plan leak Woodward helped narrow those options, while preparing the way for his own book. All in all, it’s a striking example of how the system really works, of how incestuously and narrowly -- to cite the title of Andrew Bacevich’s bestselling new book -- Washington Rules.
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