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.
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.
Among those gathered, there was a pessimism about the Arabs in general. Everyone heaped blame on them. They could not be relied on; they would pay off the thief at their throat.
After the meeting is adjourned. Bush calls King Fahd. “It was time for some pressure,” Woodward writes. Iraqi forces were massing near the Saudi border, Bush tells the king; the Saudis “had to act.”
Fahd resists. “Saudi Arabia did not need ground troops to defend itself,” Woodward writes, paraphrasing the king. “The Saudis only needed help with airpower and perhaps some equipment.” Fahd tells Bush that he understands the President is planning to send a team of experts to brief him on the situation. The idea that Bush would send a team, Woodward notes, was planted in the king’s mind by Bandar. Far more hawkish than Fahd, the prince had conceived of the briefing team as a means of forcing the king’s hand. Bush has not been told of the briefing idea, but once it’s proposed, he seeks to turn it to his own purposes. A “high-level, high-visibility team would make it more difficult for the king to delay, or say no,” Woodward writes. The White House decided to “send an offer King Fahd could not refuse.”
Dick Cheney is chosen for the job of briefing Fahd. Woodward provides a blow-by-blow description of the secretary’s trip to Saudi Arabia. Ten turgid pages later, Fahd—pressed hard by Cheney—agrees to the deployment. Cheney immediately takes off for Cairo, and Woodward follows him there—not pausing, unfortunately, to assess what he’s just reconstructed. Far from welcoming American troops onto its soil, it seems, Saudi Arabia had at first strongly opposed the idea. Only after considerable arm-twisting by President Bush—and conniving by Prince Bandar—did the Saudi king finally agree. The deployment—widely portrayed as critical to Saudi Arabia’s defense—seems more to have reflected George Bush’s own ambitions in the Persian Gulf.
The Commanders confirms what earlier accounts have suggested: that President Bush was the driving force behind US policy in the Gulf, and that once he became committed to using force, there was no turning back. Here is Woodward’s description of a mid-December meeting between Bandar and Scowcroft:
The Saudi ambassador knew that Scowcroft was a nearly perfect mirror of Bush. If Scowcroft was hot or cold on something, it meant Bush was the same.
“Basically, the President has made up his mind,” Scowcroft confided. Referring to the diplomatic efforts, he told Bandar, “These are all exercises.”
Even if we assume this account to be accurate—again Bandar seems to have been the principal source—Woodward does not provide the full context to Scowcroft’s remark. Two weeks earlier, President Bush had offered to send James Baker to Baghdad to talk with Saddam Hussein. The offer soon became bogged down in a dispute over dates, raising suspicions that neither side wanted a negotiated outcome. Scowcroft’s comment, delivered in the midst of this diplomatic flurry, seems to suggest just how little interest the President had in a nonmilitary outcome.
Not everyone in the President’s inner circle concurred with this approach. Among The Commanders’ chief virtues is the way it reveals the reality that lay behind the apparent consensus that surrounded the administration’s deliberations on the Gulf. Colin Powell was the chief doubter. In early October, as Bush’s desire for an offensive option became clear, Powell “started jotting down some notes” showing that “containment or strangulation was working,” Woodward writes.
An extraordinary political-diplomatic coalition had been assembled, leaving Iraq without substantial allies—condemned, scorned and isolated as perhaps no other country had been in modern history. Intelligence showed that economic sanctions were cutting off up to 95 percent of Saddam’s imports and nearly all his exports…. The impact could not be measured in weeks, Powell felt. It might take months. There-would come a point a month or six weeks before Saddam was down to the last pound of rice when the sanctions would trigger some kind of a response.
Confiding his views to Cheney, Powell said that “until they were sure sanctions and strangulation had failed, it would be very difficult to go to war.”
Cheney disagreed. He “did not see any really convincing evidence that the sanctions were going to guarantee success,” Woodward writes. Nonetheless, he arranged for Powell to present his views to Bush in the White House. The chairman did not do very well. A highly political general who refrained from pressing his views if he felt they would not find favor, Powell “tried to speak as an advocate, adopt the tone of an advocate, support it with his body language,…” Woodward writes. “But he did not go so far as to say to the President that containment was his personal recommendation.” None of the others present supported containment. “If only one of them had,” Woodward writes, “Powell was prepared to say that he favored it. But no one tried to pin him down.”
After that, Powell generally kept his views to himself. For the rest of the year, Woodward indicates, he dutifully helped the President prepare for war while strongly hoping that it could be avoided. Perhaps because of this ambivalence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs found himself increasingly excluded from the decision making process. Powell, Woodward observes, became “tired of learning the major administration decisions after the fact.”
The Commanders provides a vivid glimpse into Colin Powell’s mind. The chairman, we learn, was disgusted by the “race-baiting” Willie Horton ads used in the 1988 Bush campaign. He felt disdain for Oliver North and indifference toward the contras. (“For right-wingers like Cheney, the contras were a litmus test, and Powell imagined he probably had flunked.”) During a November 1989 coup attempt against Cory Aquino, Woodward reports, Powell argued against the use of American bombers lest they provoke anti-American sentiment among Filipinos. Powell’s philosophy is summed up in a quote from Thucydides that he keeps beneath the glass on his desk at the Pentagon: “Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most.” The Commanders does not resolve the mystery of Powell’s political affiliation, but, reading it, one suspects that he is at heart a Democrat—though just what kind remains unclear.
Had Powell been blunter in putting his views to the President, would it have made a difference? Probably not. Bush was so committed to his chosen course that no single person was likely to have deterred him. In the end, Powell’s views could have had an impact in only one way—if they had been made public. Had it become known last fall and early winter that the nation’s top military man had reservations about going to war, the political debate in Washington might have taken a different course. In the Senate, the resolution authorizing the use of force in the Gulf passed by only seven votes, and many of the Democrats who sided with the President wavered until the last moment. Had they known that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff himself had strong reservations about the President’s policy, the vote might have ended differently.
Yet Woodward sat on this material for many months. Why? The question was put to him on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition in early May:
Bob Edwards: You work for a daily newspaper, and I know…you probably have some feelings about sitting on information, but there has to be a lag time between the time you learned all this and the time it appears in a hardback book.
Woodward: That’s right, but there isn’t much lag time. If you look, the war only ended two months ago, and if there was something that was so crucial that I felt that this had to be in the newspaper right away, I would have gone to the sources I have and—and said that. Happily, that really did not occur.
Edwards: But if you could have published this stuff at the time you learned it, it has much more impact—it’s like your Watergate reporting—every new element that you published produced a turn in the story.
Woodward: Well, in Watergate we’re talking about crimes. In this case, we’re talking about no crimes. There’s no portrait in here of somebody with their hand in the cookie jar or doing something illegal. There’s a lot of emotion and there’s a lot of debate and…anxiety, uncertainty….
This is not convincing. The Gulf crisis did not involve illegal acts, but it did involve matters of war and peace. What could be more consequential than that?
This is not the first time such concerns have been raised about Woodward. After the publication of Veil in 1987, the New York Times columnist Flora Lewis criticized him for withholding material that could have made an important contribution to the Iran-contra hearings in Congress. Citing Woodward’s claims that William Casey knew about the diversion of arms-sales profits to the contras, and that he personally ran covert operations without congressional approval, Lewis wrote,
It is remarkable that Mr. Woodward pried so much sensitive information out of Mr. Casey. It is even more surprising that such a good reporter, who works for a vigorously enterprising newspaper, would sit on such an explosive story for such a long time.
The information Woodward has sat on this time is, if anything, even more explosive. But he is now hardly alone in playing this game. The idea and practice of holding off from reporting events until they are past—novel at the time of Veil—have since become commonplace in Washington. During the crisis just past, many daily and weekly publications waited until after the war had begun—or even ended—before reporting inside information about the administration’s policy making. On March 3, for instance, The New York Times ran a front-page “special report” on “The Path to War.” Headlined “From the First, US Resolve To Fight,” the article began:
The Bush Administration began planning an offensive campaign to dislodge Iraqi forces from Kuwait early last fall even as Administration officials insisted in public that the only mission of United States forces was to defend Saudi Arabia and enforce United Nations sanctions.
According to a reconstruction of major internal deliberations and decisions by President Bush and his senior advisers during the seven-month Persian Gulf crisis, offensive military planning began in earnest in September.
On Oct. 30, a week before Congressional elections, the President secretly approved a timetable for launching an air war against Iraq in mid-January and a large-scale ground offensive in February that would strike deep into Iraqi territory to outflank and encircle President Saddam Hussein’s army.
The article went on at great length, chronicling the administration’s relentless march toward war. Appearing a week after the end of the conflict, the story attracted little attention. Had it appeared last fall under a different headline—say, “President Approves Secret Timetable for War”—a public uproar might have ensued.*
Newsweek’s first comprehensive article on how the war came about—“The Road to War: A behind-the-scenes account of gross errors and deft maneuvers”—was not only late (it appeared on January 28) but also promotional in tone. Bush, once the subject of a Newsweek cover story on “The Wimp Factor,” here emerges as an Olympian figure full of wisdom and fortitude. “The mercurial Arabs were trying Bush’s patience,” the magazine commented on events in early August.
That morning the President watched an advance tape of an interview with Jordan’s King Hussein on “60 Minutes.” Before the broadcast he had asked for the Jordanian monarch’s support: King Hussein chose instead to attack American intentions. Now Bush had had enough. When he got off his helicopter on his return from Camp David, he barked angrily at reporters, “This will not stand—this aggression against Kuwait.” Listening, one of his closest advisers heard a tone in the voice that had not been there before. “This is a fight George Bush has been preparing for all his life,” he thought. “Saddam Hussein doesn’t know what he is in for.”
The Commanders presents the same incident in less flattering terms. It describes Powell’s reaction to the President’s remark as he watches him on CNN.
“Uh-oh!” Powell said to himself. The President had now clearly, categorically, set a new goal, not only to deter an attack on Saudi Arabia and defend Saudi Arabia but to reverse the invasion of Kuwait. Powell was stunned. He had not been consulted….
It was true that Bush had said the first day after the invasion that he wanted it reversed, but it had not been set in stone. Now here it was, a personal and emotional declaration.
In another passage, Newsweek, describing administration activities in early November, reported that “Bush and his men wanted to give diplomacy every chance, even as the American military escalation proceeded.” In fact, as is clear from The Commanders and other accounts, the increasingly bellicose Bush had come to regard diplomacy as mostly a formality.
Some of the best reporting on Bush’s policymaking appeared in Elizabeth Drew’s “Letter from Washington” in The New Yorker. Unfortunately, her information tended to appear either too late, or in too opaque a form, to have much impact. In a report dated January 25, for instance, Drew, describing the administration’s growing eagerness for war, wrote as follows:
(It became known here not long ago that John Sununu, the President’s chief of staff, was telling people that a short, successful war would be pure political gold for the President—would guarantee his reëlection….)
That the White House chief of staff was keen about the domestic political advantages of the war would seem a striking piece of news. Yet Drew, by putting the facts in parentheses, and using the passive voice to introduce them (to whom exactly did this information “become known”?), deadened the impact of a potentially important story. She clearly had excellent sources within the administration, yet the information she obtained from them was too often transmitted in a sort of code language that required several readings to crack.
Such encoding is important for journalists working in Washington. Heavily dependent on their sources, they must be careful not to cross them, so that when they come up with potentially embarrassing and revealing information, they often find ways to muffle its effect.
A good example of this appeared in The New York Times on November 3. “Baker Seen as a Balance to Bush on Crisis in Gulf,” ran the headline on a front-page story by Thomas L. Friedman. Quoting unnamed “senior Administration officials,” the article noted that while Baker “has shared President Bush’s instinct to confront Iraq,” he “has been a brake on any immediate impulse to use military force.” The article added:
While Mr. Baker has not told even his closest aides what advice he has been giving the President, a range of senior officials have a strong impression that Mr. Baker has been motivated by an acute awareness of the risks, international and domestic, that could flow from a major military conflict….
It is not that the President is urging a headlong rush to war, and Mr. Baker is calling for indefinite diplomacy—far from it. As always, what separates these friends of 35 years is more nuances and emotions than stark policy differences. And from the start, the nuance in the Persian Gulf situation has been the President’s slightly firmer willingness to confront the Iraqi leader by war, if need be.
In this thicket of hedged phrases, it is hard to figure out exactly where Baker stood. According to The Commanders, the secretary of state had serious reservations about the President’s policy. “Baker was very unhappy about the talk of using or developing an offensive military option,” Woodward writes. “He wanted diplomacy—meaning the State Department—to achieve the policy success.” Baker put his staff to work analyzing the advantages of a policy based on sanctions. This, he told Colin Powell, “should force a discussion of containment” within the Bush inner circle.
None of this appears in the Times piece. In fact, sanctions are barely mentioned. As a result, the story “had no second bounce,” Woodward writes in The Commanders, describing Colin Powell’s reaction to it. “There was no serious discussion or comment on it.”
The Commanders has had plenty of “bounce.” Like Woodward’s other books, it has made the best-seller lists. Yet its long-term effects seem uncertain. Finding out now that Colin Powell and Jim Baker favored sanctions last fall seems anticlimactic, to say the least. To have sat on this information for so long might at first glance seem strange for the reporter—and the newspaper—that kept the Watergate story alive. It suggests, though, a more guarded tendency on the part of journalists during the last twenty years. The discoveries of reporters were once rushed into print; now they’re diluted, delayed, and saved for hardcover books. The road from Watergate to the Gulf War is marked by ever greater cautiousness, and opportunism, on the part of the press. And Bob Woodward provides a particularly disquieting example of the change.
June 27, 1991
The New York Review published in its March 28 issue my own account of the administration’s decisions on the war. It was commissioned during the week after the war had begun. ↩