Commentary Magazine


Woodward’s Obsession

On Meet the Press yesterday, Bob Woodward had this exchange with its host Tom Brokaw:

MR. BROKAW: Let me ask you about what was going on in 2006 in that August meeting, especially the commander on the ground in Iraq was General Casey. He was for a troop drawdown at that time. So was his commander, General Abizaid, who was running CENTCOM out of Florida. And Don Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, thought it was time to start pulling people out of there. What would’ve happened in Iraq, in your judgment, if they’d had their way and the president had not gone forward with the surge?

MR. WOODWARD: You, you know, that’s history, but again, I, I sat in the Oval Office four months ago and asked the president about this meeting and said, “You’re saying to them, `You may send more troops.'” And he said, “Yeah. I think they got the message.” And then I said, “Did you say to them, Rumsfeld, Don, General Casey, what’s going on here? Your idea is too optimistic.” And the president got kind of churlish and said, “Well, I don’t remember my interchanges with these people.” This story here is where the rubber meets the road between the commander-in-chief, who’s the boss, and the secretary of defense and the commanding general. And there is this distance, odd detachment, time and time again, the failure to confront, the failure to deal with the reality.

This interview underscores what I have written here and here. Mr. Woodward’s obsession with process is undermining his capacity to make elementary analytical judgments, perhaps because they might reflect well on President Bush.

In his answer, note how Woodward dismisses Brokaw’s question–the key question of the period of Woodward’s newest book The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008–by saying “that’s history.” Of course everything Woodward chronicles in The War Within is history. Indeed, the surge and its success are the overwhelmingly important parts of the history that Woodward’s book covers.

By now it’s obvious to virtually everyone–even to Barack Obama–that the surge has been wildly successful. And it’s equally clear that if the President had not supported the surge, the Iraq war would have been lost, with disastrous consequences following in its wake. Yet in his interview yesterday Woodward could not admit this, let alone speak about it at length. All he wants to return to is the process of the surge decision, at least that part of the process that offends him.

What can account for this aversion to discuss at any length the success of the surge? At this point one can only conclude that Woodward knows that crediting the surge for fundamentally altering the course of the Iraq war would undermine his critical assessment and overall judgment of the Bush presidency. Mr. Woodward has settled on his verdict, and his book and promotional interviews are designed to reinforce his assumptions.

There is also a contradiction in The War Within. Woodward often speaks about the President’s “odd detachment” from the management of this war and his failure to confront and deal with reality. In more than three decades of reporting, we’re told, he’s never seen anything quite like it. And yet Woodward’s own book goes into extraordinary detail about the unprecedented opposition Bush faced from the entire military brass, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and, as it related to Iraq, his two most important generals (Casey and Abazaid). Are we supposed to believe that a thoroughly detached and aloof president was able to push through such a controversial plan in the face of such strong opposition, to say nothing of the enormous political resistance Bush faced at the time? Woodward’s thesis is self-refuting.

As for the failure to confront reality: it is President Bush who was right and the opponents of the surge who were wrong. The President understood, like many others, that the previous plan was failing. But Bush also possessed the strategic insight and political courage to advocate an increase in troops and a fundamentally different counterinsurgency strategy, which very few others advocated at the time. So who was more in touch with the reality in Iraq during 2006-2008–Bush or those who opposed his plan?

Mr. Woodward is also concerned that the next President is going to have to “fix a very dysfunctional, broken relationship, tragically so, I believe, between the civilian side and the military side.” He overstates, I think, the depth of the rupture in the relationship (relations have certainly improved since Secretary Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld). But for the sake of the argument, let’s stipulate that Woodward is right. Then ask yourself: What is the cause of the friction? Is it that President Bush was personally discourteous to the members of the JCS? Is it that he speaks contemptuously of them? Is it that he humiliates them in public, or undermines public confidence in them? Is it that he blamed past failures in Iraq on the military? Absolutely not. The source of the friction is that President Bush promoted a plan that turned out to be manifestly right, and the JCS, as well as Generals Casey and Abizaid, strongly opposed it. By my lights, that makes Bush look better, not worse.

It is remarkable: Mr. Woodward has had discussions with hundreds of people and access to hundreds of key documents on one of the most important course-changing war decisions in American history–and yet he seems incapable of understanding the magnitude of the decision and unable to make any kind of serious intellectual assessment about it.

It is as if Woodward, allowed unprecedented access to the Constitutional Convention, spent all of his time and attention on the contentious debates between the delegates and obsessed on the fact that Patrick Henry refused to attend and Edmund Randolph and George Mason, among others, refused to sign the final document. Those things aren’t insignificant; they are part of the story. But the most important part of the story is the document that emerged during that hot summer in Philadelphia. And while one may quibble with the process–it wasn’t always pretty or tidy, and it certainly didn’t please everyone who was involved–the outcome (the proposed text of the Constitution) mattered most.

Let’s carry the point a step further. If the 18th-century host of Meet the Press asked Mr. Woodward what would have happened to America and the cause of freedom if the Constitution had failed and the Articles of Confederation had remained in place, one can imagine Woodward saying, “That’s history, Tom. But again, I sat with delegates who felt deceived when the ‘Virginia Plan’ was presented for consideration. It soon dawned on many of them that the point of the Convention wasn’t to fix the Articles of Confederation, but to actually replace them. And they were furious; some even thought it bordered on treasonous. And my research reveals, Tom, that General Washington wrote a letter to Alexander Hamilton. As you’ll recall from my book, Washington was deeply discouraged after Robert Yates and Abraham Lansing left the Convention and wrote to Alexander Hamilton–and I am quoting from a top-secret letter I obtained-“I almost despair of seeing a favourable issue to the proceedings of the Convention.’ So it got ugly, Tom, and relations between the delegates are frayed, frayed, frayed. And it bothers me.”

I’m sure it would have. We all wish the Federalists and anti-Federalists had found common ground, just as we all wish that relations between Lincoln and McClellan would have been smooth rather than contentious and bitter. Yet today we would look back on Woodward’s reporting and wonder how one of the most influential journalists of his generation missed the real story.

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