Bob Woodward’s latest insider book, Obama’s Wars, reveals that the White House team has outsized egos, sharp disagreements over policy, petty bickering, and bureaucratic infighting.   It also tells us some things we didn’t know.

While some individual quotes may prove embarrassing in the short term, it should be noted that, not only does the Obama White House not dispute the substance of the book but they seem pleased with it. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel thinks it shows "that despite difficult circumstances, the president brings a consistently tough, determined and clear-eyed strategic focus to these crises."

What’s New?

Tufts international relations professor Dan Drezner asks, “Has Bob Woodward jumped the shark?”   He argues that, in the age of blogs and Twitter, it’s now impossible to hoard exclusive tidbits for months on end so that a book contains real news.    And he’s right:  Very little that’s been revealed in the excerpts thus far should be of any surprise to anyone who has followed the debate over Afghanistan policy on a daily basis.

But Foreign Policy managing editor Blake Hounshell makes a pretty strong case that the details matter.   Rather sharp quotations from top Obama advisors questioning whether we can win in Afghanistan — to say nothing of the mental health of Hamid Karzai— may well matter to regular folks who have the good sense to view all this from a distance.

From that standpoint, as The Spectator‘s Alex Massie puts it, the book "depicts an administration at war with itself over Afghanistan policy and a President so keenly aware of the paucity of attractive options that one gets the feeling – from these snippets anyway – that he’s grimly aware that Afghanistan could yet dominate his presidency and that this is one thing he’s all but desperate to avoid."

CSM’s Dan Murphy thinks this will be "be awkward for the president and his party as midterm elections in November get closer."

Civil-Military Relations

Given that it should have been obvious to anyone paying even a modicum of attention that the administration is divided on Afghanistan policy — after all, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are known to have advocated strategies at opposite poles — perhaps the issue the book brings into sharpest relief is the deep  split between the military and civilian leadership.    This was obvious to those of us reading between the lines.  (See, for example, "Debating Afghanistan: Beyond the McChrystal Leak," "McChrystal: Biden Afghanistan Plan ‘Short-Sighted’," and "Obama vs. the Generals" — all written this time last year.)  But this is an issue that few pay much attention to unless it truly spills over.

BBC North America editor Mark Mardell asks, "Is Obama at war with the military?"   He observes, "Obama is portrayed as deeply frustrated with the constant military desire to expand the mission, eventually issuing a six-page document attempting to tie its leaders to the agreed policy."   But Mardell reads the generals, David Petraeus in particular, as doing their level best to force the president to put "more time on the clock."

Bernard Finel, a professor at the National War College and Atlantic Council contributing editor, goes further:  "President Obama seems to be in over his head in trying to deal with national security.  He has not been able to control the process.  He’s been manipulated by his generals.  He’s been frustrated in his efforts to put his own stamp on Afghanistan policy.  Instead of setting policy, he’s been cast in the role of fighting a rear-guard battle against the Petraeus preference for a multi-decade, nation-building commitment to Afghanistan.  Even now, forces continue to mobilize against any effort to impose a timeline on the commitment, and frankly, it is hard to imagine Obama being able to change course before 2012."

Pat Lang, a retired Special Forces colonel and Senior Intelligence Service executive, is sharper still: "The bottom line here is that President Obama does not really have the generals under control.  This is a potentially disastrous portent for America’s future.  The president makes policy.  The generals carry it out. "

Now, I happen to fall short of thinking, as Murphy puts it, that Obama was "rolled" by the generals.   It’s hard to come away from the snippets released thus far and come away with a view other than a president deeply aware of the strategic and political risks and rewards and making a cool decision based on the available options.    But it’s rather clear that the key generals, most notably McChrystal and Petraeus, were also political actors, using the prestige of their uniforms and their savvy at selective leaks to the press, to make it much more difficult for their Commander in Chief to deny them more time and troops.   And that’s cause for discomfort.

I would call to readers’ attention a superb piece by then-Colonel Charles Dunlap (recently retired as a major general and the Air Force’s number two lawyer) in the Winter 1992-93 issue of Parameters titled "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012," in which he traced a fictional failed attempt by serving officers to overthrow the government to "the massive diversion of military forces to civilian uses, the monolithic unification of the armed forces, and the insularity of the military community."   While a coup remains unthinkable, the trends Dunlap identified nearly two decades ago continue.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.