By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster. 441 pp. $30

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Reviewed by Robert Schmuhl

The three most recent American presidents - Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama - won the White House by campaigning as outsiders, and all defeated Washington insiders (George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, and John McCain) to gain the nation's highest office. A prime lesson of Bob Woodward's secret-strewn, leak-brimming book,

Obama's Wars

, is that an outsider without governing experience needs time to learn before ever trying to lead.

Woodward makes the several-month, late-2009 review of Afghanistan war policy the spine of his narrative. The "nine often grueling sessions" closely examined every aspect of U.S. commitment in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, but the meetings, chaired by Obama, also served as a continuing seminar for the militarily untutored president. Before making a decision, he wanted what Woodward calls "homework assignments" from cabinet officers, military brass, and staff.

With Afghanistan a neglected, under-resourced conflict, the Obama administration sought to approach U.S. involvement with fresh eyes and basic questions. Why are U.S. troops still there after fighting began in 2001? What are the objectives and costs? How should the strategy change to deal with existing realities? When would it be possible to reduce the commitment and turn to pressing domestic problems?

At the end of what must have seemed a forced march up and down several Afghan mountains, the president was ready to make a decision. He ordered 30,000 more troops sent in early 2010, and a drawdown in forces to begin in July 2011. The plan would attempt to "degrade" (rather than "disrupt," "defeat," or "destroy") the Taliban, with the exact word to use vigorously debated.

Obama dictated the six-page document himself, outlining orders and terms of the policy, which Woodward duly publishes. "Maybe I'm getting too far down in the weeds on this, but I feel like I have to," Obama is quoted as saying in finishing the directive.

Woodward's title, Obama's Wars, carries a double meaning. There are bloody hostilities abroad, but there are also fierce, warlike rivalries within the federal government. While the commander-in-chief is studying briefing papers and pondering what to do, those reporting to him are fighting their own battles over turf, influence, and ego gratification.

The military seems perpetually at odds with representatives of civilian authority, including the president. Woodward depicts Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, now commander in Afghanistan, as an ambitious, ruthless infighter. "If there was someone trying to roll Obama, it was Petraeus," we're informed at one point.

Many beribboned officers can't stand one another, either. Organizational charts might suggest an orderly chain of command, but the Pentagon is really a gargantuan boxing ring, with an unlimited number of rounds and slugging below the belt common.

Similar fisticuffs occur daily within the White House. National Security Adviser James Jones, a retired Marine general and a principal Woodward source, has little regard for his deputy, Thomas Donilon, and others on his staff. Quotations from Jones' private notebook appear throughout.

Jones is also critical of Obama's closest advisers, such as strategist David Axelrod and press secretary Robert Gibbs, referring to them as "the water bugs." Woodward writes: "The water bugs did not understand war or foreign relations, Jones felt, and were too interested in measuring the short-term political impact of the president's decisions in these areas."

Given what the book reports about Jones' judgments and the criticism he endured from White House leaks - one broadcast item suggested "he appears to have Alzheimer's disease" - Woodward predicts Jones will leave soon.

The picture that emerges of Richard Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is of an outsize figure who craves the spotlight and clout. Others, though, don't share his high opinion of himself, and midway through the book there's this remark: "It wasn't until well into the Obama presidency that Holbrooke learned definitively how much the president didn't care for him."

Obama's Wars will provoke different responses from readers. Those named at the beginning as the "Cast of Characters" will be curious to see how they fare. Petraeus and Holbrooke won't be pleased, while both Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, and Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan, come across as so flawed and corrupt that one fears what they might do in retaliation.

For those who aren't "characters" in the real-life drama, the book will become either detailed evidence for Obama's supporters of careful deliberation and decision-making or a political weapon for his critics who don't think he was prepared to govern. What you think will depend on where you stand.

Though Woodward occasionally intrudes himself in self-promoting ways in an otherwise riveting narrative, he lets his reporting speak for itself. It's up to the reader to interpret the quotations and documents.

Near the end of the book, he focuses on the one interview he conducted with Obama. During it, the president said: " . . . we can absorb a terrorist attack."

Woodward's next paragraph is one sentence - "I was surprised" - before Obama continues: "We'll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever, that ever took place on our soil, we absorbed it and we are stronger. This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient."

There's a jarring, puzzling quality to the statement, but no commentary. The president goes on to express his larger worry over a nuclear weapon ending up in terrorists' hands and "blowing up a major American city."

The book's last chapter includes more attention to Woodward's interview with the president. Reviewing Afghan policy in such detail has left an impact on Obama, with the author observing: "He clearly saw the dark, unfathomable side of war."

Obama's Wars shows how an outsider without much experience tries to deal with one of many complex problems facing a new president. By taking this approach, Woodward gives a sense of the demands that await any White House victor.

Winning the office, it would seem, is the easy part.