Seldom will you see Tariq Ali and Bob Woodward mentioned in the same sentence – a fact that will not displease either of them. It’s hard to imagine two more different writers coming at the same subject, in this case Barack Obama. Woodward may have helped bring down Richard Nixon by helping to expose Watergate, but he has long since become a pillar of the Washington establishment. His deep-insider accounts of several US presidencies have rankled with his subjects, but he’s a kind and gentle chronicler of people who are, after all, his neighbours, literally and in broad ideological terms. Ali, born in Lahore when it was part of British India, remains an outlier and intellectual bomb-thrower in his adopted London; an urbane, Oxford-educated polemicist with a weakness for corporate-capitalist conspiracies.
I was prepared to dislike Ali’s The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad more than I did in the end. Partly because I knew I would encounter sentences like this: “As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed few signs of subsiding, the Orwellian mediasphere continued to proclaim ‘peace is war’ and ‘war is peace’.” Fine words, signifying nothing. And partly because of Ali’s propensity to march every argument across a bridge too far. When he writes about the state of Arizona’s plans to “give the police new powers to deal with ‘immigrants”, does he really have to add, “engendering an atmosphere that could easily lead to an anti-Hispanic Kaktusnacht”? Why pump up a perfectly good point beyond recognition?
Stripped of its Gore Vidal-school tendentiousness, the book has some reasonable things to say about the Obama presidency, such as: “From Palestine through Iraq to Iran, Obama has acted as just another steward of the American empire, pursuing the same aims as his predecessors, with the same means but with a more emollient rhetoric.” Ali cynically underestimates the accomplishments, especially the domestic ones, of Obama’s young presidency (he has in excess of two years to go, possibly even six), but he is right to reflect widespread disillusion with Obama at home and abroad.
If Ali overargues his thesis in his slender tract, Woodward makes no arguments at all in his thicker tome, Obama’s Wars: The Inside Story. This is the Woodward way, one that has earned him the top rung of bestseller lists again and again. The book opens with a typically rich anecdote from two days after Obama’s election in 2008. Two top spooks – Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Michael J Morrell, head of the CIA’s analysis division – have come to see Obama. Arriving in Chicago, their job is basically to scare him even more than McConnell had during a routine briefing prior to the election; on that occasion, Woodward writes, “Obama had half joked: ‘You know, I’ve been worried about losing this election. After talking to you guys, I’m worried about winning this election.'” Obama is expecting to have an aide or two in the room with him (not just any room, this being a Woodward book, but a bug-proof SCIF, or sensitive compartmented information facility). However, under orders from George W Bush, still president, Obama is to be briefed solo. Except, of course, that Woodward is there too, in effect – the all-seeing ex post facto fly on the wall who has reconstructed the scene by prising the details out of somebody who was there, or extracting them, as he explains, “from notes or from a colleague whom the person told”.
The resulting analysis-free first draft of history is only occasionally satisfying. The course of human events is not likely to be altered by our knowledge that senior Obama aide John Podesta thought Bush “fucked up the world”, though it makes fun reading. Similarly unelucidating is the final paragraph of The Obama Syndrome. Ali points out that Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s now-departed chief of staff, “referred to left-liberal critics of Obama as ‘fucking retarded'”. “This”, Ali concludes, “might yet turn out to be an accurate self-description for the administration as a whole.” Hmmm. I think we can safely wait for writers other than Woodward or Ali to give us deeper insights into Barack Obama’s historic, and flawed, presidency.
This review was published in The Guardian and is written by Stryker Maguire.