On the West Wing

Bush at War

by Bob Woodward
Simon and Schuster, 376 pp., $28.00
Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward; drawing by David Levine


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Americans believe that the careful political balances and individual protections of James Madison’s Constitution are out of date, unsuited to the dark realities of the twenty-first century?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

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