Going Rogue Again: “Obama’s Wars” Preview a Distraction

All eyes on the publicity machine

Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, has had the kind of publicity-filled day most authors can only dream of: send two advance copies out into the world and nab the front page of the Post, a substantial piece in the Times, top billing on Politico, then Memeorandum and the like, and a slew of analysis and dissections on just about every blog known to Beltway-kind. For the actual book, you will have to wait: Obama’s Wars won’t be out in good book stores until Monday. About four days after, we will have all moved on.

So far, the revelations are enlightening without necessarily being earth-shattering (no “Dumbledore Dies” here):

- Obama’s decision to set a withdrawal was partly influenced by politics—“I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

- Obama told Gates and Clinton (Mrs.): “I’m not doing 10 years. I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”

- Obama essentially designed his own strategy of sending over 30,000 more troops, a compromise between the military’s request for 40,000 more and Biden’s figure of 20,000.

- Obama said the nation “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.”

- The CIA created and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man Afghan army called the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams, which conducts covert operations into Pakistan.

- And the big headline-grabbing revelation: deliberations did not go smoothly, and (gasp!) the military brass did not much like the political brass. General Petraeus told an aide he thought David Axelrod was “a complete spin doctor”—isn’t that on his business card?—and, after a glass of wine (rosé? sparkling? Chardonnay?), told his staffers that the administration had “[expletive] with the wrong guy.”

We’re being a little facetious, sure, because as many have pointed out today, most of these leaks and revelations are unsurprising to anyone who followed the story of Obama’s decision on Afghanistan last year. Some of the nuggets are newsworthy—it’s important to know as much as we can about how the war is being conducted, and as much about the temperament of the president, too—but one gets the feeling the sound-bitey salaciousness driving headlines and blogs today is not exactly doing “God’s Work” journalism. (There is already a squabble developing between the right and left over what Obama was implying when he said the nation can “absorb” another attack—cue the cable guys, the distraction, and the time wasting.)

It feels like the Times and the Post have produced a movie trailer that’s gone viral. It opens: “Int. Airplane. Night: General Petraeus, a red glow on his cheek, sips a glass of sherry, turns to his aides and says…” And sure, our appetites are whetted and we’ve marked the date. Woodward, regardless of what you think of his style and his methods of access, is formidable enough a reporter to warrant you lining up at the box office. But at this stage it is pre-release publicity, and it’s already getting in the way of other more deserving stories.

One such story broke yesterday, and it also involves Afghanistan. It holds little of the gossipy intrigue of the Obama’s War reveals and it won’t be lining the pockets of any author or publisher. However, it is about as unsurprising. Yesterday, nine U.S. soldiers were killed when a NATO Black Hawk was downed in southern Afghanistan. The incident makes 2010 the deadliest year of the war for international forces; and yet, even though the AP had confirmed by last night that many of the NATO troops were American, it received not a fraction of the coverage of the Woodward book today.

The White House is already claiming the Woodward tome shines a positive light on the president; not even a complete spin doctor could twist the NATO story.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.