Commentary Magazine


Bush at War by Bob Woodward

Bush at War
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster. 400 pp. $28.00

The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 led to a myriad of changes large and small in our daily lives, to a wholesale reevaluation of our national security strategy, and to a war in Afghanistan and now, very likely, in Iraq and possibly elsewhere. It has also fueled a hunger for information about the key decisions guiding America’s actions over the course of the past months, a hunger fed by the apparent secretiveness of the Bush administration concerning its deliberations.

In Bush at War, Bob Woodward proposes to lift the curtain on those deliberations, at least for the first hundred days after September 11. An experienced journalist with the Washington Post and the author of numerous similar and highly successful books, Woodward offers extensive quotations from meetings of the National Security Council (NSC), off-the-record interviews with some of the key players, including the President, and extracts from classified and unclassified documents—all with the aim of giving us an insider’s view of critical events.

This is not to say that an insider’s view adds all that much to what informed observers of the administration were already concluding at the time. There was, for example, a widespread early impression that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was isolated within the administration; that the administration had no clear idea of its goals in Afghanistan; and that, along with a feeling of tremendous urgency, there was a great deal of uncertainty about what exactly to do. Bush at War mainly confirms these impressions, adding more detail. On other questions, including the currently fashionable one of responsibility for 9/11 and the failures of the intelligence community, Woodward largely punts. What he provides, instead, is a concise and vivid image of an administration attempting with much zeal and no little confusion to wrestle with the greatest danger to face America in more than a decade.

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Bush at War follows President Bush and his “war cabinet”—Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice—from the moment they learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to the collapse of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. A lengthy epilogue quickly sketches some of the major issues that arose subsequently, focusing on the debate about invading Iraq and the growing conflict between Powell and Cheney over that issue. The book, which proceeds in a simple chronological fashion, is written in an easy, journalistic style, and provides no references or citations of any kind.

The story opens with an exceptionally vivid description of each of the major players reacting to word of the terrorist attacks. Particularly poignant is the image of Powell racing back from a Latin America trip and unable, because of technical problems, to communicate with his deputy Rich Armitage or anyone else. A vignette of Tenet is even more telling: on learning of reports that additional unidentified aircraft were targeted at Washington, he at first ordered the entire CIA building evacuated; only the refusal of his director of counterterrorism to shut down that critical part of the agency brought Tenet to his senses, transforming him from “peace mode” to “war mode.”

There follows a detailed narrative of the war cabinet in action. Woodward paints a picture of a President determined to respond dramatically, aggressively, effectively, and, above all, quickly. In tense cabinet and NSC meetings, Bush is seen continually pressing for rapid action while his team struggles to work out novel responses to completely unforeseen circumstances. Tensions between Tenet and Rumsfeld run high as first the CIA assumes a paramount role and then it becomes clear that Defense must begin to take the lead. Powell is consistently worried about the coalition that he is desperately trying to put together, and one already has the feeling that he is fighting an uphill battle against a President more than willing to go it alone.

Finally, the war itself begins, and the meetings focus on the minutiae of the campaign. The support of regional allies is both critical and frequently belated, holding up important aspects of America’s deployment. It is clear from Bush at War as it was from speeches of the principals at the time that the collapse of the Taliban took the administration completely by surprise—without a detailed plan for the seizure of Kabul, the establishment of a new government, or the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Woodward graphically portrays Bush and his team scrambling to keep up with rapidly changing conditions half a world away.

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And that—scrambling—is the dominant image with which one comes away from this book. Bush at War is most emphatically not a real history of America’s response to 9/11, or of the war in Afghanistan, and Woodward does not really claim that it is. There is no significant exploration of the wealth of sources now available to evaluate how the battle was actually conducted and what its real results were. Nor does Woodward provide much commentary of his own, instead largely allowing the words of his protagonists and his own (unstated) principles of selection to speak for themselves. With his usual flair, he invites us to understand Bush, Powell, Rumsfeld, Tenet, and Rice, and to a lesser extent Cheney, as human beings, with all their feelings, skills, and foibles.

The picture of Bush is particularly engaging. Emotional, determined, impatient, curious, righteous, religious—the President emerges as one who sometimes tries to mask his personality behind his office but more often allows himself to appear as he is. The Bush who chokes back tears when speaking about the terrorist attacks, or holds tight to a retired firefighter as he stands on a smashed truck near the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, is the real Bush, the same man who waxes impatient in cabinet meetings, who yells at the long-suffering Rice when things are not going well and who, somewhat to his credit, never really understands why he should force his principles to yield to practicalities.

But Bush at War is far from equal in its coverage of the major players. Woodward offers little insight into Cheney’s attitudes and mindset: as has been noted by several reviewers, the Vice President’s appearances in the book are mostly brief, dramatic, and unexplained. Powell and Tenet are painted sympathetically, and also seem more human and vulnerable than the untouchable Cheney or the determined and self-confident Rumsfeld. But Woodward does not attempt to portray Powell or Tenet as always right, nor are Rumsfeld and Cheney depicted as evil or excessively overbearing. Rather, the impression left by Bush at War is of a team of strong personalities who conflict but nevertheless work together. (This seductive impression may well be the most misleading one of all.)

The most glaring omission is of the uniformed military. We were, after all, in a war: soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen were fighting, killing, and occasionally dying. Where is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS)? Where is the theater commander? Where are the commanders of large units? Where are the soldiers? For Woodward, Generals Richard Myers, chairman of the JCS, and Tommy Franks, commander of CENTCOM, are only bit characters. We are given no real understanding of how they saw the world or felt about the war. It is not even clear how important their role was, so completely does Rumsfeld seem to be in charge of operations. Although Woodward spoke with several CIA operatives in the course of preparing his book, the Marines and soldiers who fought al Qaeda and the Taliban on the ground, to say nothing of the Air Force and Navy pilots who flew countless sorties over Afghanistan, might as well not have existed. Whatever the true role of the uniformed military in developing plans and conducting the war, Woodward made no effort to ascertain or to depict it.

Particularly unfortunate is Woodward’s failure to offer an independent evaluation of the outcome of the campaign in Afghanistan. The unexpected and rapid collapse of the Taliban is allowed completely to overshadow the remaining question marks. Was bin Laden killed, or would he be captured? How badly was al Qaeda hurt? Would the new government of Hamid Karzai (about which Woodward does not speak at all) be able to establish its control in the country and maintain the order necessary to prevent terrorists from using it as a base in the future? What would become of Pakistan, whose president, Pervez Musharraf, had risked his regime to support the U.S. war? How would the left-over operations in Afghanistan affect the campaign against Iraq?

In truth, even as Woodward was completing his manuscript in October 2002, it was becoming increasingly clear that the war in Afghanistan was nowhere near so successful and decisive as the Bush administration claimed. But there is no discussion of this in Bush at War, and in that sense the book will be harmful to the process of learning the right lessons from the war and applying them to future crises.

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No less damaging in this connection is Woodward’s silence on another, closely related matter: the thoroughgoing whitewash by the current Bush administration of the 1991 Gulf war. That the President himself should explicitly defend his father’s decision not to remove Saddam Hussein in 1991 is understandable enough; that Woodward could find no one in the administration to question this assertion may also be understandable in its way, but is nevertheless very disturbing.

The results of leaving Saddam Hussein in power in 1991 included a decade of substantial and costly American military deployments in and around the Middle East, complete with constant skirmishes in the air over Iraq; Saddam Hussein’s continued merciless repression of his own people; and the development of significant anti-American hostility throughout the region. It is said that one of the reasons bin Laden chose to attack the United States was the long-term stationing of American forces in Saudi Arabia—another consequence of the failures of 1991. It is certainly clear that our policy toward Israel and the Palestinians has been dramatically affected for the worse by our need to cultivate Arab allies against Saddam. Policymakers who cannot bring themselves to say even at this late date that the decision to leave Saddam in power in 1991 was wrong are not lightly to be trusted to make the right decisions in future crises. In his epilogue, Woodward confesses to certain trepidations of his own. “It was not clear,” he writes as of last October, “what might happen in the end with Iraq, whether Bush was headed for triumph or disaster or something in between.” As of late December, that question remained unresolved—although, given America’s overwhelming power, disaster would seem unlikely. The real question was, and is, how much muddling-through we will be permitted before our inability either to succeed fully or to think seriously about the long term catches up with us. Only the event can answer.

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