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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Do Americans believe that the careful political balances and individual protections of James Madison’s Constitution are out of date, unsuited to the dark realities of the twenty-first century?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.

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