On the West Wing

Bush at War

by Bob Woodward
Simon and Schuster, 376 pp., $28.00


To an extent that we could not at first imagine, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have transformed the politics and the policy of the United States. A president of dubious legitimacy, put in office by ballot confusion in Florida and a lawless majority of the Supreme Court, has become a charismatic leader admired by a large majority of Americans. He has used his wartime aura to silence critics, greatly enlarge presidential power, and suppress civil liberties. His administration, once cautious about foreign entanglements, now promises to use its military power aggressively in the world. Without a clear casus belli, the President is using the support he has for a war on terrorism to prepare for war on a different enemy, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

All this raises profound questions about our country and ourselves. Do Americans believe that the careful political balances and individual protections of James Madison’s Constitution are out of date, unsuited to the dark realities of the twenty-first century? Or have we been so frightened by September 11 that for the moment we want leadership without qualms? Do we want the United States to be an undisguisedly imperialist power cold-bloodedly planning a war that hardly any of our allies support? Have we become a different country in the wake of the terrorist attacks? Or if not, how have George W. Bush and his administration turned us toward war on Iraq with so little public protest?

Bob Woodward might have thrown light on these questions. His book is, as he puts it, “an account of President George W. Bush at war during the first 100 days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks”—the days when the process of transforming America took hold. It is an account based on astonishing access: extensive interviews with Bush and his aides, notes taken during National Security Council meetings, and so on. I doubt that any other history of a time of crisis has reproduced the words of so many of the leading participants so close to the event.

But it is history of a curious kind, lacking the essentials of a historian’s work: context, analysis, a point of view. Woodward might well disclaim the title “historian.” He has no point of view, he would say. He aims simply to tell us what happened, item by item. The absence of analysis makes Bush at War a frustrating book. Page after page raises questions in the reader’s mind that Woodward does not mention, much less try to answer. Again and again one wants to know how we got from A to B. A critical example is when and how the war on terrorism was transmuted into a war on Iraq.

The idea of attacking Iraq was brought up at a National Security Council meeting the day after September 11, Woodward says. Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, raised it, asking: Why shouldn’t we go after Iraq, not just al-Qaeda? (Woodward does not put that question in quotation marks.) At Camp David the next day, Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, again raised the Iraq idea. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke eloquently against it. Also opposed, Woodward writes, was Vice President Dick Cheney, who said, “If we go after Saddam Hussein, we lose our rightful place as good guy.” By August 2002, however, Cheney was publicly pressing for a war to remove Saddam Hussein, dismissing the idea of sending arms inspectors back into Iraq as pointless. By then he was “hell-bent” for war, Woodward says in an epilogue. What happened in between? Woodward does not remark on the change in Cheney’s view or try to explain it.

As for the President, Woodward quotes Bush as telling his aides on September 17, “I believe Iraq was involved, but I’m not going to strike them now. I don’t have the evidence at this point.” If he ever got the evidence, he did not tell the world about it. But in 2002 he began demanding “regime change” in Iraq. Why? Was he moved by the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz argument? Woodward does not illuminate the course of his thinking.

A sharply different picture was given in The Washington Post on January 12, 2003, in a story by Glenn Kessler. It said that on September 17, 2001, the same day that Woodward reports Bush as saying he did not have the evidence to attack Iraq, the president signed a plan for war in Afghanistan that also directed the Pentagon to begin planning military options for an invasion of Iraq. The story went on to say that the longtime advocates of military action against Iraq believe that Bush moved to their view “within days, if not hours” of the September 11 attack.

Kessler’s report made another striking point. The fact that Bush had decided to put Iraq on the agenda was kept secret not only from the public but from opponents inside the administration, who included Secretary of State Powell. They were still arguing months later, unaware that Bush’s mind was already made up.

Another example of frustration in reading Woodward’s book: he quotes Bush as saying at a National Security Council meeting on September 17, 2001, “The attorney general, the CIA and the FBI will assist in protecting America from further attacks” (a strangely empty statement to make in such a meeting, more like reassuring words in a speech). Then Woodward writes: “He directed [Attorney General John] Ashcroft to request new legal authority from Congress for the FBI to track, wiretap and stop terrorists—a project already under way.” Did Bush’s words lead to Ashcroft’s broad assault on civil liberties, the secret detention of hundreds of aliens, the assertion of power to imprison American citizens indefinitely without trial and without access to counsel if the President designates them “enemy combatants”? There is nothing more in the book about domestic antiterrorism measures or Bush’s awareness of them. One wants to know more. Woodward would no doubt say he was writing a different book. Fair enough. But the access he had produced tantalizing leads that were not explored.

Bob Woodward is a journalistic phenomenon. He and Carl Bernstein, with their Watergate reporting for The Washington Post, set in motion the process that brought down the President. Then they told the story of Richard Nixon’s undoing in two best-selling books. More recently Woodward has been publishing what Gerard Baker of the Financial Times of London called “glossy promotional accounts of the achievements of the most powerful figures in American public life.” A Woodward book is an event, offering Americans a glimpse behind the scenes at the White House, the Federal Reserve, and other usually secretive institutions. The books rise to the top of the best-seller list, as this one quickly did. They have a unique tone, a bland omniscience to which many critics have objected, a mix of usually unsourced quotations and flat statements by the author of what happened and what his characters felt as it was happening.

The books tend to cast their leading characters in a heroic mold. In Bush at War, Woodward quotes a passage that Bush dictated for his diary late on the night of September 11: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” Then Woodward writes:

He was now a wartime president. Soldiers and citizens, the entire world, would pick up instantly on his level of engagement, energy and conviction. The widely held view that he was a lightweight, unconcerned with details, removed, aloof and possibly even ignorant would have to be dispelled. He had much work to do.

You can practically hear the music.

Woodward is a first-class reporter. That was brought home to me one time when I took issue with him. In 1997 he and Susan Schmidt wrote a piece in The Washington Post saying that agents of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel supposedly looking into President Clinton’s role in Whitewater, a long-ago Arkansas real estate deal, had questioned Arkansas state troopers about “any extramarital relations” Clinton may have had while governor. A deputy of Starr’s told me the story was distorted, and I criticized the article in a column as a case of tabloid journalism. I could not have been more wrong. Before long Starr made clear his obsession with Clinton’s sex life. Woodward and Schmidt had found a valuable early clue to Starr’s damaging course.

But Bush at War, like the other recent Woodward books, is not an example of probing journalism that uncovers inconvenient truths. It exemplifies, rather, a trade in which the great grant access in return for glory. When Woodward approaches a highly placed person, he likely says that he wants to understand how the great decisions were made—that he has interviewed others, and he will write about X whether X talks with him or not. Most people thus approached, fearing what others may say about them and knowing that a best seller is in prospect, will decide that they will look better in the book if they cooperate.

And they do look better. Bush at War begins with nine pages about George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, and the CIA. Both are treated with a hushed respect. The flagrant failure of the CIA to deal effectively with the threat of terrorism is explained away as the result, among other things, of Bill Clinton’s weakness. (Woodward takes repeated digs at Clinton in the book, faithfully reflecting the contempt of Bush and conservatives generally toward him.) Here is a sample of how the book treats Vice President Cheney:

After 37 years of marriage, Lynne Cheney, who holds a Ph.D. in English literature and has been chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, still marveled at the little thing inside her husband’s head that allowed him to concentrate on what was important. These days he was worried about nothing less than the future of the world.

Woodward adds to the book’s fateful tone by repeatedly noting that a document he saw was marked TOP SECRET (in capital letters). He skillfully uses small episodes to make the reader feel he was there. Bush at one point telephones Ferdinand Garcia, a steward: “Ferdie, I want a hamburger.” At the end of a stressful Camp David meeting, Bush joins others working on a wooden jigsaw puzzle. When Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, watches the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace on television and hears the band play “The Star-Spangled Banner,” she weeps.

The little anecdotes do not bring the text to life. Nor do the author’s signals of importance, like the TOP SECRET label on documents, make the reader feel he is being told something of deep interest. The underlying subject matter is undoubtedly of great significance, but the recitation of meetings and the brief sketches of personalities make Bush at War the very opposite of the cliché “hard to put down.” One reason is that the writing is so flat; another is that the book skims the surface, giving us fitful pictures of what Bush and his people said after September 11, without really engaging the substance of the issues that terrorism raised for America and the world.

The bare recitation of facts is an outmoded style of journalism. It was ended in the 1950s by the experience of dealing with Senator Joe McCarthy, when journalists realized how misleading it would be simply to report what he said without informing the reader about his past falsehoods. So the journalist as a recording machine was replaced by the journalist as both reporter and interpreter of events. That has its dangers, too, but no newspaper reader today would be satisfied with “just the facts.” It is even more unsatisfying in a book.

Woodward’s technique has another worrying aspect. We can be more confident of the way he deals with his sources in this book than in some of his others; we know that he had two long interviews with Bush and spoke with many other people. But it does not follow that the result is the truth or a fair approximation of it. It would take a rare nobility for anyone interviewed to talk about his own failings or say that something had gone wrong. Most people will give the interviewer enough to seem candid without getting into really questionable matters. When a lawyer arguing before the Supreme Court a century ago admitted that a precedent was against him and was complimented by a member of the Court on his candor, Justice Holmes murmured, “There’s nothing so deceptive as candor.”

It is context that carries us nearer the truth. How helpful it would have been for Woodward, in recording Donald Rumsfeld’s hawkish views on Iraq, to tell the reader that in 1983 Rumsfeld went to Iraq as a special emissary from the Reagan administration. At the time, Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons in his war with Iran almost daily, but Rumsfeld evidently did not mention that when he saw Saddam. Their friendly meeting opened the way to restoration of full relations between the United States and Saddam’s Iraq. (Michael Dobbs described this history in The Washington Post of December 30, 2002.)

Still, Bush at War contains some striking disclosures. We did not know before that the CIA passed out bundles of US dollars to local Afghan warlords to get them to fight the Taliban: a total approaching $70 million, Woodward says. He describes how CIA paramilitary teams were dropped into Afghanistan before the US war, starting on September 26 with an agent known only as Gary. (Some reports say the tactics are being repeated now in Iraq.)

One memorable passage describes a conversation Gary had, before leaving, with Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center. “Go find the Al Qaeda and kill them,” Black said. “We’re going to eliminate them. Get bin Laden, find him. I want his head in a box.” “You’re serious?” Gary asked. “Absolutely,” Black replied, according to Woodward. “I want to take it down and show the president.”

But the fact remains that the American war in Afghanistan, remarkably successful though it was in crushing the Taliban, did not get rid of bin Laden. It did not eliminate al-Qaeda. Indeed, a report to the UN Security Council in December 2002 said that the terrorist organization was adding new recruits and forming alliances with national and regional groups. That the terrorist menace remained serious was demonstrated in Bali and Mombasa.

Bush said he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.” It was a popular slogan politically, identifying the President with the macho mystique of the Old West. But then he did not have to pay a price when it turned out to be an empty threat. If Bill Clinton had said he wanted bin Laden dead or alive, right-wing commentators would surely have mocked him with that phrase when bin Laden apparently escaped and resurfaced, and when terrorists who may have been linked to al-Qaeda carried out monstrous new attacks.

Bush’s political immunity was, and is, an extraordinary achievement. I say “achievement” because I think he was in good part responsible for it. He stepped up to the challenge of September 11 in a way that defied the dim impression many, perhaps most, Americans had of him. The mangled syntax, the sense of being unprepared and uninformed fell away as he presented himself as a “war president.” He treated the terrorist attacks exactly as he had written in his diary: as Pearl Harbor. Americans wanted defiance and revenge, and that is what he promised.

It is also true that the Democrats were weak, divided, and reluctant to tangle with a war president. The press was muted, too. And the administration was ready to play the patriotism card against its critics. As Elizabeth Drew pointed out in these pages,* Bush said of members of Congress who did not want to authorize war on Iraq until the UN had acted: “It seems like to me that if you’re representing the United States, you ought to be making a decision on what’s best for the United States.” Attorney General Ashcroft said that Americans who complain of lost civil liberties “only aid terrorists.”

I think Bush was underrated before September 11. Whatever his other shortcomings, he is a highly effective politician. He has the instinct, and he is ruthless in playing the game. Ask John McCain, who in the crucial South Carolina primary in 2000 was the target of ads suggesting he was anti-Southern. The ads were placed by a Bush partisan, an outsider, and Bush claimed he had had nothing to do with them—just as his father had said in 1988 that he was not responsible for the ads attacking Michael Dukakis over the prison furlough of Willie Horton. When it comes to politics, the Bushes are not given to noblesse oblige.

The aura of “war president” has been exploited without mercy by Karl Rove, Bush’s political guru, and the Republican Party generally. Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, was attacked as weak on national security because he opposed the provision of Bush’s bill for a new Homeland Security Department that would end civil service protection for its employees. Cleland was defeated for reelection. With control of the Senate, the Republicans will doubtless use the argument of helping the war president to press for Bush’s domestic political agenda.


But Iraq remains the big question, the test that Bush chose for himself. Why did he choose it? As we seemingly head toward war, as the newspapers tell us how the administration is planning its occupation of Iraq, I keep coming back to that mystery. Bush could have emerged from Afghanistan an undoubted victor, a president who ignored the doubters, plunged into that difficult place, and won. Why Iraq?

There is a clue in Bush at War. On October 3, 2001, as the administration was preparing for war in Afghanistan, Bush had a private meeting in New York with a group of business leaders. “I truly believe,” he told them, “that out of this will come more order in the world—real progress to peace in the Middle East, stability with oil-producing regions.” No one could believe that a war in Afghanistan would have such sweeping effects. Woodward makes nothing of the statement, but surely it indicates that the vision of a war on Iraq as the way to a broad peace and progress—the vision pressed by Paul Wolfowitz—had occupied Bush’s thinking.

That such a grandiose view has informed the administration’s policy on Iraq is also made evident in David Frum’s The Right Man. Toward the end of the book, Frum, a leading conservative political writer, offers this peroration:

The terror and burden of war were thrust on George W. Bush. To defeat that terror, the United States has been drawn into an ambitious campaign to undo and re-create the repressive and intolerant Middle Eastern status quo. If successful, this campaign will bring new freedom and new stability to the most vicious and violent quadrant of the earth—and new prosperity to us all, by securing the world’s largest pool of oil.

The logic of that view is hard to follow. Even if an American invasion of Iraq were quickly successful, how would that defeat terror? As Bush has ratcheted up the talk of American military action, anti-American feeling has grown around the world. The northwest corner of Pakistan is now controlled by Islamists who demand the removal of US forces. Terror has claimed lives in Yemen, Kenya, Indonesia. That crushing an Arab state would reduce terrorism seems to me a far-fetched notion.

From January 2001 to February 2002 David Frum was a speechwriter for President Bush. He was the author of the famous Bush phrase “axis of evil,” and he takes some pride in that. He might better have understood that the phrase has turned out to be a foreign-policy disaster, with grave consequences in North Korea.

Not surprisingly, Frum is lavish—one might say awestruck—in his praise of Bush. In one passage he notes differences between Clinton and Bush. “Were the Clintons morally slack?” he asks. And answers: “Bush opened every cabinet meeting with a prayer and scorned the petty untruths of the politician.” Scorned untruths? He is writing about a president who said Iraq had a fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used “for missions targeting the United States”—a fleet unknown to anyone else. A president who has repeatedly falsified the cost of privatizing Social Security. A president who cited a nonexistent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iraq was “six months” from a nuclear weapon. (Dana Milbank of The Washington Post reported some of these and other Bush embroideries of the truth.)

But Frum performs a service by revealing the state of mind in the Bush White House on many important matters. Sometimes he may be describing only his own beliefs; but he was a Bush speechwriter, and he reflects the atmosphere there.

He helps to explain, for example, Bush’s view of Iran. When Bush included it along with Iraq and North Korea in his axis of evil, many people were puzzled. The elected Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, has been pressing for greater freedom; and there is rising popular resentment of the theocracy that holds ultimate power. American intervention would enable the theocrats to denounce reform as the work of “the Great Satan.” Wouldn’t it have been wiser for the United States to stay silent now? But Frum says: “The critics who argued that we ought to keep mum about the mullahs were often the very same people who had argued in the 1980s that we ought to accommodate ourselves to the Soviet Union, lest we ‘strengthen the hard-liners in the Kremlin.’” Frum predicted that if the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein, “with American troops so close, the Iranian people would be emboldened to rise against the mullahs.”

Frum finds the difference between Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld analogous to that between two Civil War generals, George McClellan and Ulysses S. Grant. In each case, he says, the first favored “the smallest possible war,” the second “the biggest possible victory.” It would be interesting to hear Colin Powell’s reaction to being cast as the incompetent McClellan.

One of the puzzling features of the Bush presidency has been its fiercely hostile—paranoid may not be too strong a word—attitude toward the International Criminal Court. The framers of the new court, Americans prominent among them, took careful steps to prevent rogue prosecutions. But President Bush and his associates, arguing that they must guard against the remote possibility of Americans being prosecuted, have carried on a determined drive to destroy the court before it can begin its task of judging those accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

David Frum throws some light on this policy when he discusses what he describes as people, including some Americans, who resent and dislike the United States. When the Soviet Union fell, he says,

those same ill-wishers hastened to bind the United States within a new network of international agreements and treaties: the international convention on land mines, the Kyoto Accords, the International Criminal Court. Those agreements cost the United States much and offered it very little, but out of a combination of guilt and self-doubt and the urge to be seen as good fellows, much of the American elite was willing to see their own country’s freedom of action constrained. With his “axis of evil” speech, President Bush served notice to the world: He felt no guilt and no self-doubt, and he was a lot less eager to be perceived as a good fellow than he was to stand up to the bad fellows.

Just as he charged that Americans who favored a less provocative policy toward Iran were some of the same who had been soft on the Soviet Union, so Frum saw bad intentions in those who differed with Bush on the court, Kyoto, and the land mines treaty. If you disagree, you are unpatriotic.

But it is on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict that Frum is most revealing. “Of course the Palestinian Authority is the epicenter of world terrorism,” he writes. “Since at least 1991, America’s Middle East policy has aimed at promoting the Authority into a state into which billions of dollars of US and European aid could be poured.” In those and other comments on the conflict, Frum sounds more extreme than Sharon. He shows no understanding of, or interest in, the situation of Palestinians in the occupied territories after thirty-five years of humiliation and the injustice of having their land taken from them. Their bitterness is not an excuse for the horror of suicide bombing, but it is a historical reality that anyone who is seriously concerned about the conflict has to consider.

Could we really suppose,” Frum asks at another point, “that we could begin the war against terror by creating an Arafatistan on the West Bank?” Frum is giving his own views. But reading them, one can understand why Bush and Cheney sabotaged Secretary Powell’s trip to the Middle East last April, which was intended to get peace talks going again.

What moves George W. Bush? These two books are too worshipful to take us very far toward understanding him, but they do give us some revealing details. Religious belief is surely an important factor. Frum describes a meeting in the oval office last September with five clergymen, three Christian, one Muslim, one Jewish. “You know,” Bush told them,

I had a drinking problem. Right now I should be in a bar in Texas, not the Oval Office. There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer.

Bush’s born-again Christianity may influence his policy on such matters as stem-cell research. Almost any other imaginable president, including his father and Ronald Reagan, would likely have agreed to supporting research, rejecting the position of anti-abortionists that any use of the cells is unacceptable. The President’s heart was with the opposition, but he endorsed the use of a limited number of cells already taken from discarded embryos, while banning any further use of embryos for medical purposes. (Frum praises Bush’s solution as a political masterstroke, ignoring the fact that it is forcing one of the most promising fields of scientific research out of the US.) Bush’s own faith, and his desire to please some evangelicals and Catholics, surely led him to oppose the use of condoms by adolescents to prevent AIDS. The US was alone on the issue at an international conference.

Bush’s views on the Middle East conflict may be affected by his religious outlook; many evangelical Christians are strong supporters of Israel, which they see as the embodiment of God’s assignment of the land to the ancient Hebrews. But religion may play a more general role in Bush’s character. Elizabeth Drew spoke of his “messianic streak.” In manner he is the most unpretentious of men, a regular fellow. But when he sees a menacing problem, he does seem to feel that he was born to set it right.

Hubris is another component of Bush’s character. What else could explain the extravagant vision of what an invasion of Iraq can accomplish? It is an example of that most dangerous of political illusions, utopianism: the belief in perfect solutions, the rejection of the incremental change that usually characterizes any political leader’s efforts.

On Iraq, President Bush has taken different positions. After declaring war on terrorism following September 11, he was publicly cautious at first, stressing the need for international solidarity. Then came a period of growing threats that the US would take on Saddam Hussein alone: a unilateralism that alarmed much of the world. His decision to go to the UN and ask for the return of arms inspectors to Iraq was greeted with relief. Was that decision only a tactic? Before the inspectors made their first report, US planning for war on Iraq accelerated. So did the dispatch of ships, planes, and soldiers. The growing numbers of American troops in the region have been made an argument for an early attack by the pro-war faction in the administration. The troops could not be kept there through the many months when it was too hot to fight, they argued, and it would be humiliating for Bush to pull them back now.

If the US does attack Iraq, there will be protests around the world. President Bush and his associates will dismiss them as the voices of the discontented and the uninformed. But they ought to care about the views of some who cannot be dismissed so easily. Here the opinions of two leading British columnists, both admirers of the United States, are worth attention. Simon Jenkins of The Times of London warned of “an America fearful, paranoid and reacting to fear with a disproportionate belligerence.” Philip Stephens of the Financial Times spoke of “the deliberate swagger of conservative hawks in Washington.” Writing of the Marshall Plan, NATO, and other achievements of American diplomacy, Stephens said,

Those commitments were born of confidence. They marked an understanding that American leadership is at its most effective when the rest of the world is convinced of its legitimacy…. The fearful in Washington want to fight wars. The bigger task is to win the argument.

When he spoke to Congress on September 20, 2001, President Bush said, “Freedom and fear are at war.” Suppose he had gone on in that vein, insisting that America would not compromise justice or civil liberty in the struggle against terrorism. Suppose he had tried to rally the world to deal with the danger of nuclear and other hugely destructive weapons in the hands of tyrants like Saddam Hussein but had not threatened unilateral war on Iraq. Suppose he had reached out to critics in Congress instead of questioning their patriotism.

If Bush had gone down that road, perhaps the public would not have embraced him as warmly as it did after September 2001. That is why I wonder, as preparations for war go on, whether the United States today is a changed country.

—Cambridge, Massachusetts,
January 16, 2003

  1. *

    War Games in the Senate,” The New York Review, December 5, 2002.