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Sitting on Top of the News

The Commanders

by Bob Woodward
Simon and Schuster, 398 pp., $24.95

The release of each new book by Bob Woodward has become something of a national ritual. As the publication date approaches, word spreads that Woodward has spent months interviewing officials in one or another of the government’s deep recesses. Book reviewers are informed that, because of the book’s sensitive contents, they will not receive advance galleys, only the published book. When it finally does appear, The Washington Post runs extracts on its front pages for several days running, and Newsweek, a Post property, features it on the cover. Woodward himself makes the rounds on TV and radio, fielding questions about his reporting technique.

The questions raised by The Commanders are similar to those stirred by Woodward’s earlier books. The book contains no notes, no bibliography, no identified sources. Conversations from months or even years ago are recounted verbatim; personal thoughts are rendered with no hint of attribution. Instead, we are referred to a “Note to the Reader” that indicates the number of people interviewed (more than four hundred) over how long a period (twenty-seven months) and how often (“Many key participants were interviewed repeatedly, some on a regular basis as events unfolded. Several were interviewed two to three dozen times”). In a formulation that has become as familiar as the health warning on a cigarette pack, Woodward notes that

direct quotations from meetings or conversations come from at least one participant who specifically recalled or took notes on what was said. Quotation marks are not used when the sources were unsure about the exact wording.

No doubt many readers—especially those wary of the you-are-there narrative techniques of “the new journalism”—will find this unconvincing. Yet Woodward’s reporting has not been discredited. When The Final Days disclosed that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had prayed together in the White House, many were skeptical, but Kissinger’s own memoirs later confirmed that the incident had taken place. Woodward’s Watergate coverage has recently been challenged by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin in the book Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, but for the most part his reporting has stood up over time. The Brethren, Woodward’s book on the Supreme Court, was criticized for being gossipy and ignorant of the various legal issues that came before the Court, but it gives one of the few reliable accounts of the Court’s inner workings. Veil caused much controversy with its claims that Woodward made a bedside visit to the expiring William Casey, yet no one has seriously challenged its description of life at the CIA.

Now comes The Commanders, with its inside look at Bush administration policy making during the invasion of Panama and the war in the Persian Gulf. Anyone concerned with historical evidence will no doubt find much to complain about. Powell becomes “alarmed,” Scowcroft is “astonished,” and Cheney turns “furious”—all without attribution. Yet, in the weeks since The Commanders appeared, only one senior official—George Bush—has publicly criticized the book (“nitpicking analysis after the fact,” he remarked), and he admitted that he had not actually read it. Colin Powell, who is reported to have spent hundreds of hours with Woodward and was his main source, refused to comment when asked about the book; surely he would have felt obliged to correct any statements falsely attributed to him. Newsweek reports that Dick Cheney, after reading the book, phoned Brent Scowcroft and said, “If we had lost [the war], boy, would we be in trouble.”

Woodward’s accuracy, then, has not so far been an issue. There are other questions, though, which have to do with how Woodward has used the sensitive material he has gathered. What did Woodward know, how well did he understand it, and when did he tell us about it? The same query might be put to the Washington press corps as a whole. Indeed, The Commanders raises some important questions about the press’s overall coverage of the crisis in the Gulf.

1.

The Commanders is not an easy book to read. Written like a wire-service report, it is filled with long, at times tedious passages with no evident direction. Accounts of high-level meetings read like a secretary’s minutes, with each person’s views related in detail. “At 11 a.m. on January 8, Bush went to the Cabinet Room,” begins a typical passage.

Present were Cheney, Scowcroft and Sununu. Eagleburger was sitting in for Baker. Boyden Gray and the senior lawyers from the departments, including Fred Green of the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff], were also there.

Bush had a copy of his draft letter [to Congress asking for authorization to use force in the Gulf]. He said that he was inclined to send it. The question was whether to remain passive or attempt to control the outcome with a specific administration proposal. Would he win, he asked the legislative directors for the White House, NSC, State and Defense.

The consensus was that he would. But it was not 100 percent sure. Head counts were being taken.

There follows a summary of the views of each of the officials present, ending with a decision to send the letter to Congress. The point of all this is not immediately clear.

Such passages make The Commanders seem like a rush job. In fact, it is. Woodward completed work on the manuscript in mid-March, only two months after the start of the war. That left little time for digesting the material he had gathered or even editing it. The problem is compounded by the author’s own self-admitted limitations as a journalist. “I can’t write those big cosmic analyses,” he told Playboy in 1989. “I read things by various people that I wish I could replicate, weaving fact and judgment, the kind of sophisticated calls that really help the narrative. But I am just not capable—and this is a grave fault—of taking A, B, C and D and saying, ‘OK, now E.”’

In The Commanders readers must often provide their own E. Revelations abound, but they come and go with little warning. “On Saturday, December 1, the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] went to Camp David to meet with the President,” one chapter begins. “They had done some private grousing about not having seen the President in the middle of the largest military deployment since Vietnam.” Woodward goes on to summarize the discussion, concentrating mostly on an estimate by General Merrill McPeak, the head of the Air Force, that the bombing campaign would destroy 50 percent of Iraq’s military machine. “Privately,” Woodward observes, “McPeak thought it would be greater than 50 percent, but he knew that over the years airpower advocates had discredited themselves with wild predictions.”

What is one to make of this? That the Air Force anticipated great success in the air campaign? That McPeak was too cautious in public? That he was too confident in private? Forced to puzzle this out, readers are likely to miss the real news here—that the Joint Chiefs of Staff rarely got to see the President. The December 1 meeting marked the first time since the start of the crisis that the heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines were able to meet their commander-in-chief. What kind of military advice did Bush forgo as a result? The Commanders does not say.

One person who did get to see the President regularly was Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Woodward dwells at length on the prince’s activities, and rightly so. A forty-one-year-old former fighter pilot, this “Arab Gatsby,” as Woodward calls him, “gave big parties and extended himself to any individual or group important to his country.” A specialist in “out-of-channel relationships,” Bandar kept in his residence “15 to 20 locked attaché cases containing the details of covert operations or confidential arrangements with individuals and countries.” During the Reagan years, he played an important part in the Iran-contra affair, serving as a conduit for Saudi money to the Nicaraguan rebels. Reputed to be both charming and ruthless, Bandar worked hard to stay on good terms with Bush, Baker, Cheney, Scowcroft, and Powell. According to Woodward, though, Powell thought he was deviously pursuing goals of his own—exactly what they were is not clear—and did not trust him.

Not so Brent Scowcroft. According to Woodward, the national security adviser felt that Bandar had “a pretty clear channel” to Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and so made sure the prince “had direct access to Bush when necessary.” On the day after the Iraqi invasion. Bush met with Bandar and expressed his intention of helping the Saudis. Seeking a more concrete commitment, the prince referred sarcastically to President Carter’s decision to send F-15s to Saudi Arabia at the time of the shah’s fall from power in Iran. Once the planes were in the air, Bandar recalled, Carter had announced they were unarmed—thus rendering them useless. Hearing this, Woodward writes,

Bush seemed almost hurt, as if…the Saudis suspected his resolve. He seemed to be taking the questioning personally.

I give you my word of honor,” Bush finally told Bandar, “I will see this through with you.”

Bandar felt his hair stand up. The President of the United States had just put his personal honor on the line.

Bandar clearly seems the source of this passage. (Who else would know how his hair responded?) Although Woodward makes it clear that Bandar had a scheming character, he does not try to assess the veracity of his account. What does seem clear, however, is the extraordinary access Bandar had to the Oval Office. Unfortunately, Woodward fails to point out the full irony of this. Throughout the Gulf crisis, President Bush rarely sought advice from people outside the government. He was especially reluctant to meet with American scholars specializing in Arab affairs, whom he generally scorned as too “clientelistic”—too ready to give the concerns of the Arab world priority over American interests. Yet it is clear from The Commanders that Bush relied very heavily on the Saudi ambassador—a man whose position made him an advocate of Arab, not American, interests.

The consequences of this would become apparent on August 4, when the President and his top advisers met at Camp David to consider responses to the Iraqi invasion. This session marked a critical step on the path to war, and Woodward provides the first detailed account of what happened during it. Too detailed, some might say. In seven pages we learn of virtually every topic broached at the meeting, from Iraqi chemical weapons to Muslim holy sites. (Where is Mecca? Sununu asks at one point.) The centerpiece is a briefing by General Norman Schwarzkopf on Operations Plan 90-1002, the Pentagon’s top-secret contingency plan for moving 200,000 to 250,000 troops to the Gulf.

But would Riyadh accept such a deployment? “My worry about the Saudis,” Bush is quoted as saying, “is that they’re going to be the ones who are going to bug out at the last minute and accept a puppet regime in Kuwait.” Some “very sensitive intelligence” is presented, indicating that the Saudis are thinking of “buying their way out of the threat by offering billions of dollars from their oil revenue to Saddam.” This sets off a furious response.

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