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A Cautionary Tale

So far, 2004 is the year of the singing insider. In January Paul O’Neill, the former secretary of the Treasury, ascended to a high place on the best-seller list. In March the former counter-terrorism coordinator, Richard Clarke, vaulted over him to the top. In April the journalist/insider extraordinaire, Bob Woodward, surpassed all his predecessors. Although his book may represent the high-water mark of this flood of apparent revelation, there are certainly several smaller surges to come.

The program for an insider book is now well established. There are enticing pre-publication rumors and leaks; at publication time one or two quasi-sensational passages, often out of context, become front-page stories; rumbles of anger and comment from the administration enliven the author’s talk show appearances; the book rises to the top of the best-seller lists; and in a few weeks it is superseded by the next sensation. It is not clear how many people actually read these books, which often contain much new information and interesting comment. As for their impact on the political process, the most recent polls show that, along with the September 11 hearings and the debacle in Iraq, they have so far had little discernible effect on the President’s popularity ratings, although his approval ratings for foreign policy and the Iraq war are declining.1


Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack is, for better or for worse, sui generis. Who else can talk on the record for several hours to the President of the United States, who then encourages his senior colleagues to follow suit? The enterprise is filled out by seventy or so lesser mortals who, not that it matters, prefer to remain anonymous. These remarkable arrangements apparently justify the absence of all references or footnotes. The provenance and reliability of the many pages of quoted remarks and dialogue—as many as in most novels of similar length—are left to the reader’s imagination. My favorite product of this method occurs on page 440. “‘HOLY SHIT!’ Powell said to himself as he read a copy of Tenet’s speech.”

Woodward does not set out to be a graceful writer and he avoids analysis or comment, but he certainly has a style of his own. Maureen Dowd has pointed out that body language plays an extraordinarily large part in Woodward’s descriptions.2 Indeed one often longs for more articulate forms of expression, especially on important issues. Sports also provide important background. George Tenet, the avid basketball player, cries “Slam-dunk!” to justify to a skeptical President a remarkably thin intelligence dossier on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s experience as a college wrestler is given due weight, and Colin Powell believes that “work and life are contact sports.”

As the title implies, the core of Plan of Attack is the long and complex buildup of United States forces from November 21, 2001, when the President asked Rumsfeld, “What kind of a war plan do you have for Iraq?” until March 19, 2003, when the war started in earnest with the delivery of thirty-six cruise missiles and four bunker-buster bombs from two Stealth F-117s on a target of opportunity, Dora Farm outside Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein and family were believed to be staying. The agent who reported their presence was killed in the attack; Saddam Hussein was not.

This was no ordinary military build-up. Washington was pursuing simultaneously a military and a diplomatic approach to Iraq, and considerable stealth and public denial were required. Woodward reveals the now controversial secret transfer of $700 million from the appropriation for Afghanistan to pay for initial costs of the buildup in the Gulf. “I have no war plans on my desk,” Bush told Chirac and Schroeder in May 2002. Allies and potential allies had to be persuaded, bases and transit and overflight rights secured, and, above all, intelligence gathered to support the rationale for the war, Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). This all makes for a fascinating story, but it is the main actors, their behavior, and their relations with each other that make the book a best seller.

Woodward’s previous book, Bush at War, ended with the House and Senate votes that, in October 2002, granted the President full authority to attack Iraq unilaterally. It was the story of a young president standing tall after the horror of September 11, which is presumably the reason for the almost unlimited access that Woodward was given for a second book. The rivalries and disagreements between cabinet members were already simmering in the first book, but still under control. By the end of Bush at War Colin Powell is beginning to develop a closer relationship with the President, and the outlook is tough but promising.


Woodward’s current book, Plan of Attack, is a cautionary tale about the government of the most powerful country in the world. It appears against the ominous backdrop of mounting disaster in Iraq and the steady expansion of global suicide terrorism. The book is inevitably less upbeat than its predecessor. Nonetheless, the President himself still comes out much better than his colleagues. He is decisive—sometimes too decisive—asks tough questions, cuts through unnecessary complications, and is skeptical of glib intelligence reports or rose-tinted scenarios. When Kanan Makiya, one of the Pentagon’s favorite Iraqi émigrés, visits Bush with two other Iraqi dissidents, Makiya tells Bush,

You will change the image of the United States in the region. Democracy is truly doable in Iraq. Force for destruction can be turned to a force for construction. Iraqis are a technically able people. They are literate with electricized villages.”

We’re planning for the worst,” Bush said.

People will greet troops with flowers and sweets,” [another dissident] said.

How do you know?” Bush asked.

Dogmatic and ill-informed advice, deficient or misleading intelligence, a tendency to grandiose but unrealistic objectives, and a disinclination to listen to dissenting voices also dominate the narrative. When Brent Scowcroft, the President’s father’s national security adviser, writes, in an Op-Ed piece entitled “Don’t Attack Saddam,” that there was little or no evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and advised against the US going it alone in Iraq, Powell thanks him, but Condoleezza Rice rebukes him for “a slap at the President.” There is also a pervasive sense of posturing for electoral purposes. When Karl Rove comes to Crawford over Christmas 2002 to discuss the 2004 reelection campaign, he brings a strategic plan that starts:


Strong Leader Bold Action

Big Ideas Peace in World

More Compassionate America Cares About People Like Me

Leads a Strong Team

However, Bush very sensibly resists Rove’s plan to initiate fund-raisers in February 2003. “We got a war coming,” the President told Rove flatly, “and you’re just going to have to wait.”

Woodward describes in detail the personal feelings and feuds of Bush’s court, often apparently in their own words. From the earliest days there had been a basic disagreement between the Defense Department, where Paul Wolfowitz was an unstoppable advocate of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and the State Department, where Powell and his colleagues thought the idea was lunacy. Vice President Cheney also was obsessed with getting rid of Saddam. After September 11 this obsession was reinforced by the studiously circulated but unsubstantiated ideas that Saddam Hussein had been part of the September 11 attack, that he might give WMDs to terrorists, and by Donald Rumsfeld’s suggestion that September 11 provided an excellent opportunity to attack Iraq.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is the Hamlet, the troubled man, of this story. From the beginning he worried that “from Washington and the Pentagon and the White House, and even his own State Department, war seemed antiseptic, and at times like a great game…. The top echelon of the Bush administration was notably free of those who had seen combat.” Powell saw the President far less frequently than Cheney or Rumsfeld. He was doubtful that the President fully grasped the potential consequences of war, but he did succeed in persuading Bush to speak to the UN General Assembly about Iraq and to go to the Security Council, where he initially scored a great success getting the tough Resolution 1441 adopted. Powell thought that “Cheney was ‘terrified’ because once the diplomatic road was opened up, it might work.”

Despite the tentativeness and unreliability of the intelligence, the rhetoric for war became increasingly shrill. On August 26, 2002, Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.” Cheney dismissed with contempt the importance of sending UN inspectors back to Iraq. The vice-president, Powell thought, was “beyond hell-bent for action against Saddam.” Bush told members of the House on September 26, “Saddam Hussein is a terrible guy who is teaming up with al-Qaeda. He tortures his own people and hates Israel.”

The strident certainty of the rhetoric steadily mounted in spite of the return of the UN inspectors to Iraq in October and the lack of serious evidence. In fact the inspectors set off a new round of paranoia. Hans Blix, the levelheaded Swede who ran the inspection team, remembered the problems of the previous inspection group and was determined to keep his UN group independent of the CIA. He was spied on, publicly reviled, and called a liar. One source even called him “Greenspanesque.” To add insult to injury, Woodward reveals that Karl Rove, “the highest ranking Norwegian-American in the White House…was convinced of the historical duplicity of the Swedes…” and contributed to the President being “wired up” about Blix. (After all these gratuitous humiliations, Blix, at last, has the consolation of having been proved right.) War was inevitable, the official line ran, because Saddam Hussein refused to turn over his weapons of mass destruction, an impossible dilemma for the Iraqi despot since he had none to turn over, although he never seems to have realized that he had to prove it.

Rice and Rumsfeld said okay to war. The vice-president was crazy for war. That favorite White House visitor, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, had at last been given his long-demanded assurance that there would be war. (“This is going to happen,” Rumsfeld told him on January 11, 2003. “Once we start, Saddam is toast,” added the vice-president.) But no one had officially informed the secretary of state, so the President told Colin Powell in a twelve-minute talk. (“His tight, forward-leaning, muscular body language verified his words.”) Bush asked Powell if he was with him. Powell, after asking Bush if he knew that he “would be going to be owning this place” (Iraq), said that he was. Woodward says that to walk away at that point “would have been an unthinkable act of disloyalty to the president and to Powell’s own soldier’s code, to the United States military, and mostly [sic] to the several hundred thousand who would be going to war.” Surely this is protesting too much. After all, the troops hadn’t yet gone to war, and this was a matter of the highest possible national and international concern. Woodward does not discuss whether Powell’s strong disapproval of what he regarded as a deluded war policy, and his view that that policy might well lead to disaster, should have, or did, cause him to consider resigning at an earlier stage. At that point, when war was already a virtual certainty, his resignation would surely have had a very strong impact. After all, other senior officials—Secretary of State Cyrus Vance among them—have resigned over far less weighty issues.

  1. 1

    See, for example, “Bush Poll Numbers Defy Conventional Wisdom,” by C.K. Rairden, Washington Dispatch, April 21, 2004, and “Support for War Is Down Sharply Poll Concludes,” The New York Times, April 29, 2004.

  2. 2

    The Body Politic,” The New York Times, April 22, 2004.

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