To write a history of the present is an inherently difficult task. The documentary and anecdotal records are fragmentary as best, contradictory at worst. The author’s memory of recent events is fresh but often raw. Detached analysis of the relative significance of these events is almost impossible when their consequences are not yet fully apparent. The recent past has not even begun to recede toward that vanishing point where “events” end and “history” begins.

So it is with the two books under review here, dealing with wars whose origins are now almost a decade old yet whose outcomes remain fodder for speculation. Bergen’s Longest War is the more ambitious undertaking and the more rewarding read. As much a short history of the Al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden as an analytical narrative of the war the United States wages with it, the book will be a useful source both on American foreign policy and on the nature of modern jihad for years to come. Few journalists are as qualified as Bergen to explain to the uninitiated the origins of bin Laden’s jihad and the strange spell his pious charisma casts over its recruits. As CNN’s national security analyst, Bergen first interviewed bin Laden in 1997, long before his name became a household word, and he has produced two other books dealing with the man, Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (2002) and The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda’s Leader (2006).

Central to bin Laden’s personality was a soft-spoken shyness combined with white-hot fanaticism. As is typical of most fanatics, bin Laden permitted his hatred for the United States to degenerate into contempt. That contempt, Bergen explains, was fed by the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon following the attack on a Marines barracks there in 1983 as well as by the retreat from Somalia in the wake of the “Black Hawk Down” incident of 1993. It led bin Laden to the conclusion that the United States was weak and that an attack on the American homeland would not trigger a counterattack in the Middle East and Central Asia, as more sober militants warned it would. As a consequence, the attacks of 9/11 were a disaster for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, leading to its expulsion from the country just as its control over it was all but complete. But the attacks were also a major strategic error for Al Qaeda over which bin Laden would have plenty of time to brood in his mountain cave at Tora Bora.

Yet, blinded as bin Laden was by hatred, the Bush administration was itself blinded by a reckless confidence in its own judgements of what constituted imminent security threats to the United States prior to 9/11. For while it is true that threat assessment in both the Clinton and Bush administrations had been impeded by a larded and bureaucratic national security establishment (a structural vulnerability, incidentally, that has not since been remedied), both were warned of Al Qaeda’s reach and possible ambitions. Nothing testifies more powerfully to the failure of the bureaucracy than the fact that on the morning of the attacks the CIA and its sister agencies were glutted with data they had failed to turn into knowledge of an imminent peril. Only hours after the destruction of the World Trade Center they could release detailed information on the Al Qaeda operatives inside the United States – information hitherto squirrelled away on hard drives all over Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The primary failure was nonetheless with the elected executive. Bergen’s explanation for the Bush administration’s insouciance about Al Qaeda right up to the morning of reckoning was that its leading personnel were unreconstructed creatures of the Cold War. I am not sure about this. One of the administration’s most controversial figures, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was from the day of his swearing-in in a war of his own with the American military, as he attempted to transform it from its Cold War model. Still, Bergen is stone cold correct that the Bush administration was taken utterly by surprise because it did not give appropriate priority to the warnings it received only weeks before the attack.

He concedes that the Bush administration’s initial counterstroke in Afghanistan was “one of the most stunning unconventional military victories in modern history, overthrowing the Taliban in a matter of weeks with only some four hundred American soldiers and intelligence officers on the ground, working with tens of thousands of men in the Northern Alliance and the targeted wrath of the US Air Force.” Thereafter, however, things in Afghanistan began to go awry, as the light footprint of the American forces in the country was insufficient to establish a cordon around Al Qaeda’s hard core and thereby prevent bin Laden’s escape to Tora Bora and then Pakistan. The goal of capturing bin Laden, Bergen speculates, was thereafter quickly overtaken by Bush’s plans for Iraq and the demand for resources in preparation for the Anglo-American invasion of March 2003.

Bergen moves onto the terrain favored by critics of the Bush administration with his review of its case, before the United Nations and elsewhere, against the regime of Saddam Hussein. In the absence of compelling evidence that the Iraqi dictator had any connections to Al Qaeda specifically or jihadism generally, the administration charged him with the development of weapons of mass destruction. It was a narrowly legal and therefore politically perilous case, revealed additionally to be fallacious once Baghdad had fallen and no significant caches of WMD were found.

Thus began an erosion of international support for Bush’s conduct of the War on Terror, an erosion hastened by a calamitous occupation in which the dissolution of the Iraqi military deprived 400,000 men of their jobs even as the occupation forces failed to secure supplies of conventional weapons strewn about the country. As the occupation forces in Iraq then became a target for both foreign jihadists and disenfranchised Iraqis, the country vaulted toward anarchy between 2003 and the “surge” in American troop strength announced by Bush in January 2007. From that point Al Qaeda in Iraq was pushed relentlessly toward the same kind of strategic defeat it had already suffered in Afghanistan, but Bergen cautions that the jury is still out on whether the Iraq gambit was “the most spectacular foreign policy blunder of the past several decades, or whether, out of the wreckage, something resembling a coherent Iraq will eventually arise.”

The low point of the military and political struggle in Iraq corresponded to the climax of international and domestic criticism of other aspects of the War on Terror, above all the improvised detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the practice of extraordinary rendition of selected prisoners into the hands of foreign governments known to apply torture in interrogation. Yet neither the setbacks at nation-building, the mounting casualties of counterinsurgency in Iraq nor the ugliness of Guantánamo and rendition were sufficient to get Bush turfed out of office in 2004. Bergen does not ask why Bush’s policies were not as unpopular with the American electorate as with the foreign governments and the media opinionate. Rather, he moves rapidly into the positions taken by presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama in the election of 2008, applying Obama’s statements in pursuit of his ultimate victory as primary yardsticks for the performance of his administration.

Joining the Bush and Obama presidencies at the hip is, above all, Afghanistan. As a candidate, Obama had opposed the troop surge in Iraq and had charged that Bush had in effect abandoned a necessary war in Afghanistan for an ill-conceived war of choice in Iraq. By the time of Obama’s election, however, the situation in Iraq had improved remarkably, while the Afghan struggle with which Obama had distinguished his candidacy from other Democrats was in serious trouble.

Both wars were now nonetheless Obama’s wars. Moreover, as Bob Woodward explains in Obama’s Wars, the relationship between them in Obama’s plans for the foreign policy of his presidency was complementary. His eagerness to stand down American forces in Iraq was coupled with as a determination to ramp up the War on Terror’s first business in Afghanistan.

In contrast to Bergen, Woodward tells the story of Obama’s early foreign policy from the White House, from the perspective of the administration itself where Woodward has enjoyed unparalleled access to the key players. This, combined with attention to personal biography, finds Woodward using personality sketches of advisers and decision-makers as vehicles for his narrative of policy decisions. As Bush’s replacement for the hard-charging Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, for example, Robert Gates offered the kind of dispassionate yet expert counsel an incoming president appreciates. Woodward therefore devotes considerable attention to Gates. His treatment makes the case that, although Obama’s election campaign was in large part a refutation of Bush’s foreign policy, international realities and American commitments abroad in fact dictated a good deal of continuity between the administrations. The unassuming Bush-appointed Republican personified that continuity. Afghanistan was its natural theatre.

The ouster of the Taliban, after all, was the immediate American response to 9/11, and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan have since become a massive multilateral effort legitimized by the United Nations. With a Washington career dating back to the National Security Council in 1974 and subsequent service in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, Gates was possibly better positioned than anyone else to advise the new president on the Afghan mission. His advice included the cautionary note that for much of the existing uniformed military command the struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq were unwelcome distractions from the endless planning for hypothetical wars of the future. Gates was therefore crucial in putting the new president in direct contact with a military leadership invested in the idea of winning in Afghanistan and who would say bluntly what they needed.

It is on this matter in particular – the transfer of foreign policy responsibility from one administration to its successor – that Woodward’s fly-on-the-wall journalism combines nicely with Bergen’s self-consciously more analytical and critical approach. Woodward’s most revealing chapters cover the increasingly frank discussions among Obama, Gates, National Security Adviser General James L. Jones and military leaders with hands-on counterinsurgency experience, notably General David Petraeus and General Stanley A. McChrystal. McChrystal’s “Commander’s Initial Assessment” of August 2009 in fact became the basis for Obama’s increase of American troop strength in Afghanistan. Woodward notes that the 30,000 additional troops Obama gave McChrystal, after weeks of poring over documents, in response to a request for 40,000 amounted to an increasingly Americanized mission in which NATO “had grown into a fig leaf that gave the cover of an international effort.”

Bergen, on the other hand, is more sensitive to the meaning of this Americanization of the Afghan mission viewed in relation to the Bush administration’s 2007 surge in Iraq and Obama’s opposition to it. Bergen observes that “the surge in Iraq had succeeded for a number of reasons, including the Sunni Awakening, but Obama, who had never publicly conceded that he had been wrong about the Iraq surge, ironically now used its success as an in important way of informing his way forward in Afghanistan.”

The political compromise for this double-down on the military bet in Afghanistan, of course, was that Obama set July 2011 as the date for the beginning of a staged withdrawal, the “exit strategy” beloved of all governments concerned with assuring their publics that overseas commitments are not, despite appearances, open-ended. The military leadership had wanted 2013 as the start for a drawdown. Woodward reveals that Gates’s influence had facilitated a compromise not only on the date but also on the definition of the mission. In a six-point memo the goal of “defeating” the Taliban was purged from its priorities in preference for “disrupting” and “degrading” the insurgency.

Inevitably, the ghost of Vietnam – more accurately, the prevailing middlebrow narrative of the Vietnam War lovingly perpetuated by the mediocrity of so much contemporary journalism – haunted this and other discussions of American military commitments. Luckily, from Bergen and Woodward we have something quite different from the tired old refrain with its “escalations” and “quagmires.” Woodward confronts the ghost in a personal interview with President Obama recounted in the closing pages of Obama’s Wars. “I am probably the first president who is young enough that the Vietnam War wasn’t at the core of my development,” Obama claims, “so I grew up with none of the baggage that arose out of the dispute of the Vietnam War.”

At no point does Woodward openly question the accuracy of the president’s statements and interpretations. The last president in whose destruction he had any interest was Richard Nixon, and Nixon was in the end a lesson in self-destruction. At that time Woodward and Carl Bernstein set a new standard for investigative journalism into the excesses of an administration and contributed significantly to its downfall. Woodward now enjoys the trust of presidents in part because he has ever since studiously avoided gotcha journalism, while so many lesser talents assume it to be their profession’s primary mission.

In Obama’s Wars Woodward makes it clear that the administration is not immune from the poisoning legacy of Vietnam as long as any prominent member of the press opts to bring it up. He tells of how David Petraeus – military commander of the Afghan mission ever since McChrystal was forced to resign over the publication of intemperate remarks he made to a journalist for Rolling Stone – reacted to speculation by David Ignatius of the Washington Post that Afghanistan would become Obama’s Vietnam. Petraus phoned Michael Gerson, another Post columnist, to elicit an article in rebuttal, telling Gerson that the Afghan mission stood no chance of success if the President held back on troops. Because Gerson had been a speechwriter for the Bush administration, Obama was furious that Petraeus should be willing to go on record in a column that would make him sound like a “Bush general” and in a manner that prejudged a presidential decision. But above all the President was upset that the Vietnam comparison was now out there and the press might paint the decision before him in Afghanistan with the same brush it had used time and again to depict Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

Bergen is much more impatient with what he deems “facile comparisons to the United States’ misadventures of past decades in Southeast Asia” and much more eager to demolish them. “The similarities between the Taliban and the Viet Cong ended with their mutual hostility toward the U.S. military,” for “although the Taliban had roughly quadrupled in size between 2006 and 2009, still the some twenty-five thousand Taliban full-time fighters were too few to hold even small Afghan towns, let alone mount a Tet-style offensive in Kabul.” As to casualties, Bergen argues that Afghanistan is something of a social tea compared to Vietnam, accounting for 154 American dead in 2008, the same number of American servicemen claimed by Vietnam every four days in 1968.

His larger point, however, is that every war has many characteristics unique to itself, so that the intellectually casual application of “lessons learned” from past conflicts not only degrades the quality of presidential decision-making but also corrupts the logic of reportage covering it. The failure of the Bush administration in Afghanistan, he maintains, was not in waging war there but rather in beggaring the war for resources as it plunged into Iraq. The result was that “after 2001 the Taliban reemerged, this time fused ideologically and tactically with al-Qaeda, and the new Taliban adopted wholesale al-Qaeda’s Iraq playbook of suicide attacks, IED operations, hostage beheadings, and an aggressive video-based information campaign.” With his review of Afghan strategy and troop surge in response to McChrystal’s assessment Obama had made the war his own. “Afghanistan would not be Obama’s Vietnam,” Bergen concludes, “nor would it be his Iraq, although it could be his Afghanistan.”

Over the course of 2009 Obama appeared to be taking his time feeling his way forward, both because he did want it to appear that he had already made up his mind and because he really hadn’t. Bush’s approach to the invasion of Iraq had been entirely different. Even as Secretary of State Colin Powell was putting the case against Saddam Hussein to the United Nations Security Council, there was unmistakable body language from the administration that it intended to use military force no matter what the outcome of the diplomacy. That any connection between international terrorism and the Iraqi dictator was all but impossible to establish did not trouble Bush; when after the invasion few weapons of mass destruction were found the administration was only slightly more ruffled, even though short weeks before it had itself cultivated public discussion of the weapons that bordered on the hysterical.

In contrast, Bergen reports, coming into office, Obama was loath to use the term “war on terror.” While he did not share the view common to some of his supporters that terrorism was in reality a law-enforcement issue, neither did he award 9/11 the status of world-historical event. “We can absorb a terrorist attack,” he told Woodward. “This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient.” Resolved to run American foreign policy at a lower operating temperature, Obama was ever mindful that his decision on Afghanistan be neither rushed nor predetermined.

Yet in a very substantial way Obama took discreet ownership of the Afghan war from the earliest days of his presidency, above all in his attention to the Pakistani dimension of the conflict. The Bush administration had attacked Taliban sanctuaries in the tribal regions of Pakistan with devastating strikes by Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles and JDAM bombs. Far from reigning in Bush’s drone program when he came into office, Obama increased the number of sorties against Taliban and Al Qaeda targets dramatically. Where Bush had authorized 45 drone strikes in the eight years of his presidency, Obama struck 51 times in 2009 alone.

The sanctuaries in Pakistan are prominent among the factors Obama’s more pessimistic advisers cite when they warn that he cannot “win” in Afghanistan. Petraeus is not one of the pessimists, and his experience was too valuable to Obama to let his politicking with the press stand in the way of his command of the war. Woodward reports that back in 2006 then−Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had offered Petraeus command in Afghanistan, at the time a war most observers thought the United States was winning. Petraeus had resisted the offer, expressing a preference for Iraq, a command he assumed in 2007 under conditions that drove him close to despair. His success in Iraq then qualified him for Afghanistan, just as conditions were dragging the country back into the Taliban’s version of hell.

It is here that the two books converge in conclusion: an unfinished war whose original antagonist, Osama bin Laden, was thought to be hiding in the largely lawless territory of northern Pakistan until he was found and killed May 1, 2011, in a special operation authorized by President Obama. Bergen quotes an Al Jazeera reporter who has written an Arabic biography of the Al Qaeda leader to the effect that “as long as Osama bin Laden is alive he has defeated America.” Viewed from that perspective, Obama’s contribution to a struggle inaugurated by his predecessor appears deeper than ever.

Notably absent from both books is a significant discussion of, or even an index entry for, neoconservatism, which in the view of its most dedicated enemies is a form of rabies that drove the Bush administration to madness in the Middle East and Central Asia. At this writing, however, President Obama has engaged the United States in a limited intervention in the unravelling of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, and is under pressure to increase the scope of that intervention. That pressure exists only because the international conditions that made neoconservatism a force to be reckoned with in the American foreign policy establishment are very much alive and at large. It would be the supreme irony if Obama, elected in large part as a rebuke to George Bush for involving the United States in two wars, took the country into a third. But, in Libya or elsewhere, the choice may not be entirely Obama’s to make. The history of the present goes on, and on.

Peter L. Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and al-Qaeda. New York: Free Press, 2011. 496 pages.

Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. 464 pages.