Daniel W. Drezner

Has Bob Woodward jumped the shark?

Has Bob Woodward jumped the shark?

There are many peculiar rites of passage for each incoming U.S. administration: the first scandal, the first resignation, the first broken campaign promise, and the first botched use of force. 

Add to this list the first Bob Woodward book of an administration. Like a debutante’s coming-out party, there are highly formalized rituals — the press leaks about the good stuff in the book, the Sunday morning talk show commentators obsessing over the more controversial bits and pieces, the inevitable meta-essays on Woodward himself. As a young foreign policy wonk, I remember looking forward to the latest Woodward tome the way others looked forward to the latest Stephen King novel. 

That was then, however — with Obama’s Wars, has Bob Woodward demonstrated that he’s about as irrelevant as the debutante circuit? 

Woodward is operating in a very different media environment now. 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?"

Let’s see what Steve Luxenberg’s preview in the Washington Post has to say: 

President Obama urgently looked for a way out of the war in Afghanistan last year, repeatedly pressing his top military advisers for an exit plan that they never gave him, according to secret meeting notes and documents cited in a new book by journalist Bob Woodward….

Among the book’s other disclosures:

— Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn’t think about the Afghan war in the "classic" terms of the United States winning or losing. "I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?" he said.

— The CIA created, controls and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man paramilitary army of local Afghans, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. Woodward describes these teams as elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.

— Obama has kept in place or expanded 14 intelligence orders, known as findings, issued by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The orders provide the legal basis for the CIA’s worldwide covert operations.

— A new capability developed by the National Security Agency has dramatically increased the speed at which intercepted communications can be turned around into useful information for intelligence analysts and covert operators. "They talk, we listen. They move, we observe. Given the opportunity, we react operationally," then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell explained to Obama at a briefing two days after he was elected president.

— A classified exercise in May showed that the government was woefully unprepared to deal with a nuclear terrorist attack in the United States. The scenario involved the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon in Indianapolis and the simultaneous threat of a second blast in Los Angeles. Obama, in the interview with Woodward, called a nuclear attack here "a potential game changer." He said: "When I go down the list of things I have to worry about all the time, that is at the top, because that’s one where you can’t afford any mistakes."

— Afghan President Hamid Karzai was diagnosed as manic depressive, according to U.S. intelligence reports. "He’s on his meds, he’s off his meds," Woodward quotes U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry as saying.

Hmmm…. there is some interesting stuff, but it’s more in the details (Karzai’s depression, the CIA’s paramilitaries) than in the overarching narrative. Obama feuded with the military on Afghanistan? There was bureaucratic dissension on Afghanistan? Well, blow me down!! 

This ain’t how it used to be. In The Commanders, for example, Woodward showed that JCS Chairman Colin Powell was much more reluctant to attack Iraq than previously known. 

Now it’s possible that this is simply a function of me being more cynical older than I used to be. But the fact is, I just don’t look forward to a new Bob Woodward book anymore. 

Question to readers:  has Woodward jumped the shark?