Bob Woodward
Bob Woodward; drawing by David Levine

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the author’s talk show appearances; the book rises to the top of the best-seller lists; and in a few weeks it is superseded by the next sensation.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.


One of the most surprising, and disastrous, aspects of the preparations for the war in Iraq was the lack of serious attention to planning for the occupation. Bush only signed the National Security Presidential Directive setting up the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance on January 20, 2003, two months before the war started. The Defense Department official responsible for occupation planning was the undersecretary for policy, Douglas Feith, a protégé of Richard Perle. Woodward says that Feith “appeared to equate policy with paper” and was not popular with the military. About Feith, General Tommy Franks was reported to have told colleagues, “I have to deal with the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth almost every day.” Frank Miller, the director of the NSC staff for defense, a former naval officer and nineteen-year veteran of the Senior Executive Service, thought that “too many senior and mid-level people in Defense were big-idea people who loved concepts, paper and talk, but they were not experienced managers. ‘They don’t do implementation,’ he reported to Rice and her deputy Stephen Hadley.” This was not a promising start for the most vital and difficult part of the war planning.

The turf war between State and Defense didn’t help either. The State Department’s meticulously thorough “Future of Iraq Project” was not welcome in Rumsfeld’s Defense Department. Even less welcome were the seventy-five State Department experts who had done the study and might, in a less crazily parochial situation, have been expected to be in the vanguard going into Iraq. Powell was enraged to learn that the leader of the team, Thomas Warrick, and another expert, Meghan O’Sullivan, had been ordered by Rumsfeld to leave the Pentagon by sundown. “What the hell is going on?” Powell said in a phone call to Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld said that as they got into postwar planning, the work had to be done by those who were truly committed to this war and supporters of change and not those who had written or said things that were not supportive. Powell took this to mean that his people didn’t support “exiles like Chalabi.”

After a strident top-level row, O’Sullivan was allowed to return to the Pentagon, but not Warrick. In the bloody shambles that the Iraq occupation has become, this absurd interdepartmental tiff on a supremely important subject seems criminal.

Ironically Powell the doubter, because the President thought he had “credibility,” was the administration’s unanimous choice to present the case for Saddam’s WMDs to the UN Security Council and to defuse all the damaging questions about Saddam’s WMDs that Blix’s inspectors were beginning to raise. According to Woodward, “Powell thought that Cheney took intelligence and converted uncertainty and ambiguity into fact.” On this occasion Powell came pretty near to doing the same thing himself, in spite of rigorously selecting from the intelligence offered by Cheney’s office and the CIA. With what seemed great conviction, Powell paraded before the council pictures of alleged installations and sinister vehicles, among other gimmicks, which we now know to have been a collection of nonexistent smoking guns. He convinced many people, including that most skeptical of journalists, the late Mary McGrory.

Largely out of consideration for Tony Blair’s difficulties with domestic opposition to the war, Bush had allowed Powell to continue to pursue the diplomatic track through the UN Security Council, but no consensus on an enabling resolution could be reached. The troops were ready to go, and, although Woodward doesn’t mention it, the weather in Iraq was getting warmer. Bush’s declaration of war came as an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq within forty-eight hours. The ultimatum was accompanied by a crescendo of hyperbole about Saddam’s WMDs, cooperation with terrorists, and imminent threat to the US and everyone else.


If there is a sting in Woodward’s book, it is in his very long epilogue. The war starts amazingly well. Saddam doesn’t use “unconventional weapons” (because he didn’t have any), and, Bush tells Blair, “The body language of Tommy [General Franks] and all the commanders is pretty positive.” However, Woodward’s tone begins quietly to change. On April 13 Cheney hosts a small victory dinner—which, one year later, seems foolishly premature—for Wolfowitz, Scooter Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, and Kenneth Adelman, a friend of Cheney’s and a former director of arms control in the Reagan administration. There is much chuckling at Powell’s expense. Cheney says Powell “likes to be popular,” and “Colin always had major reservations about what we were trying to do.” Powell soon gets his own back. During the planning period, Powell had always felt “that the easier the war looked, the less Rumsfeld, the Pentagon and Franks had worried about the aftermath.” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Powell’s closest friend, concludes that Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council is dysfunctional in coordinating foreign policy.

This time the President doesn’t quite escape either. In January 2004 David Kay, the resigning head of the Iraqi Survey Group that had been looking for Saddam’s WMDs, announced, “We were almost all wrong” about the WMDs. Commenting on this to a group of editors, Powell made the Delphic statement that “the absence of stockpiles changes the political calculus,” which led to the Washington Post headline, “Powell Says New Data May Have Affected War Decision,” which in turn enraged both the President and Rice. Bush is evidently touchy on the WMD question, as well he might be. When Woodward told him that many people were saying that he had become “less the voice of realism for not saying and acknowledging that the weapons had not yet been found,” Bush hedged and then said, “But you run in different circles than I do. Much more elite.” He then reaffirmed the correctness of his decision to go to war. “And there is no doubt in my mind we should have done this. Not only for our own sake, but for the Iraqi citizens.” No doubt at all. Perhaps that is one of the most dangerous problems facing the US.


For all the military and diplomatic moves, the feuds, gossip, and downright foolishness, another, far more disturbing theme runs through Woodward’s book. This is the sense of messianic big ideas not properly thought through, a certainty that sometimes even hints at divine rightness, and an undertone of manifest destiny under the guidance of Almighty God. It would be audacious at the best of times to proclaim publicly an inten-tion to remake the world; it seems both tactless and counterproductive to do so when the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are desperate, when the obscene acts at Abu Ghraib have shocked the world, and when the rhetoric of the fundamentalist and terrorist movements which are our most urgent problem is focused on a “holy war” against “crusaders” and the heretic West.

Cheney provides a good example of great ideas not properly thought through when he says of Bush, “Democracy in the Middle East is just a big deal for him. It’s what’s driving him.” Sometimes supposedly great ideas seem to pop up out of nowhere. Explaining to Woodward his reasons for agreeing to be interviewed, Bush said that the carefully targeted war on Saddam Hussein “will enable other leaders, if they feel like they have to go to war, to spare innocent citizens and their lives…. To me the big news is America has changed how you fight and win war, and therefore makes it easier to keep the peace in the long run. And that’s the historical significance of this book as far as I’m concerned.” (Woodward gives no estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties.)

Tony Blair, Bush’s Iraq soulmate, creates some kind of record for ill-timed grandiosity when he tells Bush at the beginning of the war, “I kind of think that the decisions taken in the next few weeks will determine the rest of the world for years to come. As primary players, we have a chance to shape the issues that are discussed. Both of us will have enormous capital and a lot of people will be with us.” The familiar generalizations—changing the world, putting a new face on the Middle East, building democracy abroad, the United States as the beacon of freedom in the world—seem less benevolent when used to justify preventive or preemptive war. For many people in the world outside, they have also come to represent an anachronistic arrogance.

Bush’s closest associates have been at pains to emphasize that Bush is decisive, his own man, and very much in charge, but Woodward writes, “Powell noted silently that things didn’t really get decided until the president had met with Cheney alone.” Still, however the decision process actually works in the White House, there can be no doubt that the President’s evangelical Christian faith is an important part of it. Recalling the moment at which the order was given to launch the ground forces into Iraq, Bush told Woodward, “It was emotional for me. I prayed as I walked around the circle. I prayed that our troops be safe, be protected by the Almighty, that there be minimal loss of life…. Going into this period I was praying for strength to do the Lord’s will…. I’m surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible….”

That would seem to be the sincere statement of a deeply religious person at a very critical moment in his life. It is when the President’s personal faith appears to enter into policy, in the talk of “evil” and “evildoers,” or “those who are not with us are with the terrorists,” or of a war that is carrying out the will of Almighty God, that serious concerns arise. Our most immediate and dangerous enemy, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, have already declared a holy war against our society and all its cherished values. If we are to face this enemy united and confident in ourselves, we need the widest possible coalition of allies, including the governments of Islamic states. It would be disastrous if a powerful country like the United States were somehow to talk itself and its allies into a religious war.

There is also the problem of where, in public, personal faith should stop and national leadership begin. It is no secret that Christian evangelicals, whose unshakable fundamentalist beliefs go beyond issues of domestic policy and influence foreign policy questions such as the Israeli–Palestinian problem, are a growing and very influential part of the electorate. Recently Charlie Rose asked Bob Woodward about Bush’s remark that he appeals for support to a higher father than his own, the forty-first president. Woodward replied that he understood that this was rather standard Christian theology. About Bush’s statement quoted above, that in making war he is a good messenger of God’s will, Woodward added that “I know in the White House, they think this is great to get out, because most people in America who read that or hear about that are going to say, that’s what they want their president doing.”3 I wonder if Woodward is exaggerating about “most people in America.” Anyway, let us hope that we are not taking the first subliminal step toward religious war.

In another interview Woodward provides a poignant epigraph to his book: “…If you push or try to push toward the question of who is George Bush, this decision to undertake this war is the most defining characteristic of him. Everyone I’ve interviewed agrees he was passionate, he was hands-on, he was committed, and the problem is, he may have been wrong.”4 Although some Cabinet members have disputed Woodward’s renderings, the White House seems happy enough with the portrait of the President that emerges from his book, and that is one of the most disturbing things about it. As for the possibility of the President being wrong, that is something that this White House does not seem able to consider.

May 13, 2004

This Issue

June 10, 2004