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Letting Bush off easy.

Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward Simon & Schuster. 467 pages. $28.00.

By now, Bob Woodward's latest book on the Iraq War has gotten reams of publicity, and some of the main revelations have already circulated. We've learned that Bush and Rumsfeld used $700 million in appropriations that were earmarked for the war in Afghanistan to prepare for war against Iraq. We've heard how CIA Director George Tenet boasted that the intelligence agencies had a "slam dunk" case against Saddam Hussein for harboring weapons of mass destruction. And we've gotten more evidence of Bush's messianic militarism as Woodward revealed that Bush sought strength not from his own father but from a "higher father."

The book has other telling details about the President and the players around him. And it provides a blow-by-blow of the military buildup (more war plans from Tommy Franks than I ever care to read about again), a full choreography of the diplomatic Kabuki dance, as Colin Powell called it, and a running soap opera of the bitchy in-fighting among the cabinet officials.

Woodward can't resist, however, intruding on the narrative by citing his own hobnobbing. Do we have to hear about a dinner he hosted for Rumsfeld in 1989? Or a dinner he had with Senator Bob Graham?

But that's the least of the problems. For all the dish, Woodward lets Bush off easy and ultimately distorts the historical record.

Here are some of the juicy things you might not have read about yet.

Woodward depicts the President Select as a goofy ingenue when Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell went to the Pentagon to meet with the Joint Chiefs ten days before inauguration. During the briefing, Bush acted like a puerile frat boy, grabbing a peppermint from Defense Secretary William Cohen's plate and also taking one from Army General Hugh Shelton. (For his part, Cheney fell asleep at the briefing, Woodward says.)

Woodward confirms Richard Clarke's assertion that the Administration was obsessed with Iraq. At a pre-inaugural briefing from CIA Director George Tenet, Bush and Rice heard about the three most serious threats to national security: Osama bin Laden, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and China. "Iraq was barely mentioned," Woodward says. But "on the seventeenth day of the Bush Presidency, Monday, February 5, Rice chaired a principals committee meeting ... to review Iraq policy."

And Woodward confirms that Rumsfeld, at 2:40 p.m. on the afternoon of September 11, "raised with his staff the possibility of going after Iraq as a response to the terrorist attacks."

By the way, Woodward says that Rumsfeld, shortly after becoming Secretary of Defense, said, "Let me see the Korean war plan." (The possibility of a war against North Korea in a Bush second term should not be discounted.)

While Woodward notes that "Rumsfeld spent six months as the Middle East envoy for President Reagan in 1983-'84," he neglects to mention that Rumsfeld shook Saddam's hand during this period and that he tried to broker better relations between Washington and Baghdad. A curious omission.

Woodward reveals a couple of secrets about his own actions. He and The Washington Post bowed to the CIA's request, on at least one occasion, not to print a story right away. That story concerned the possibility of a loose dirty bomb. And he also said he had written five paragraphs about how the claims of the Bush Administration on weapons of mass destruction weren't holding up, but his editors convinced him not to proceed. In hindsight, he says, he should have pushed for it to be a page-one story.

Now you tell us.

Woodward also reveals that Bush's famous "Axis of Evil" speech for the 2002 State of the Union began with only one spoke: Iraq. The axis was originally between weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, with all the emphasis on Saddam. Rice and her deputy, Steve Hadley, "were aware of the secret planning on Iraq, and they worried that singling out Iraq as the embodiment of the 'axis of evil' connection between WMD and terrorism would appear a declaration of war.... So she and Hadley suggested adding other countries. North Korea and Iran were the clear candidates."

There are other tidbits, some comical. Lynne Cheney accompanied her husband on a Mideast tour in March 2002 to drum up support for the Iraq War. One day they visited three countries, and at lunch in Qatar, Lynne was dining with "the favorite wife of the emir," a key U.S. ally, Woodward writes. "When do kids start school here in Bahrain? Mrs. Cheney inquired. This isn't Bahrain, the wife replied."

Note to Bush: Don't appoint Lynne Cheney to be your next Secretary of State.

Other anecdotes reveal Bush's cockiness. For instance, Woodward reports that Bush bragged about his notorious speech in September of 2002 to the United Nations, the one where he told the body that it risked becoming "irrelevant" if it didn't do what he demanded. "It was a speech I really enjoyed giving," he told Woodward, and he made fun of the delegates who sat mute throughout it, saying they acted like they were in a Woody Allen movie.

And Woodward cites several instances where Bush outright lied, repeatedly saying he had no war plans on his desk when he actually did.

One surprising thing, to me anyway, was the extraordinary access that Bush granted Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Not only did Rumsfeld and Cheney notify him about the war before Powell got the heads-up, according to Woodward, but Prince Bandar was able to saunter into the White House almost any time he wanted to (including just hours before the war started). More than anyone in the book, the prince spoke assertively to Bush, demanding that he take out Saddam, Woodward reports.

I was also surprised to learn how close the United States came to killing Saddam in that first strike of the Iraq War when spies for Washington pinpointed where Saddam was. As it turns out, according to Woodward, the bomb injured Saddam and bloodied his two sons. It also killed one of the American spies. Another one was summarily executed by either Uday or Qusay.

Woodward provides another revelation: official figures of how many Iraqi soldiers the U.S. killed in the war. The estimates ranged from 30,000 (Tommy Franks's) to 60,000, according to unnamed generals who spoke to Woodward. He notes, however, that the Pentagon had an official policy not to do enemy body counts.

One of the creepiest anecdotes in the book concerns a celebration that Cheney threw at his house on April 13, 2003, four days after U.S. troops helped pull down the statue of Saddam. In attendance were Cheney's wife, his aide Scooter Libby, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and neoconservative Kenneth Adelman--probably the four biggest proponents of the Iraq War in the country.

Said Adelman: "I just want to make a toast, without getting too cheesy. To the President of the United States." Woodward writes: "They all raised their glasses, Hear! Hear!" And then they proceeded to make fun of Colin Powell.

Cheney, incidentally, told Bush to beware of the book, Woodward writes. Bush told the author: "He sees this book coming out in an election and again he's just, he's worried about it, just to be frank with you."

Maybe he shouldn't have been. Woodward offers Bush several ways out, and it's not for nothing that the White House is recommending that people buy the book.

Woodward paints the President as almost the victim of a morality play that his aides were performing.

In his epilogue, Woodward contends that the President "had bought in" to Tenet's claim that the case against Saddam was a "slam dunk." And in the main text, he quotes Bush as saying that Tenet's assertion was "very important."

This implies that Bush might not have gone to war were it not for Tenet's reassurance. But long before Tenet invoked the basketball metaphor, Bush had announced that his goal was regime change.

And Woodward's own account of the December 21, 2002, "slam dunk" conversation makes clear that what Bush was looking for was not evidence of mass destruction but better PR to sell the war he had long since decided upon. Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, had just made a long presentation of the intelligence agency's case. "Nice try," Bush said. "I don't think this is quite--it's not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from."

Andrew Card, Bush's chief of staff, was also in attendance, and he, too, wanted better PR. "Card was also underwhelmed," Woodward writes. "The presentation was a flop. In terms of marketing, the examples didn't work, the charts didn't work, the photos were not gripping, the intercepts were less than compelling."

Bush told Condoleezza Rice, "Let's get some people who've actually put together a case for a jury."

And then, at the end of the meeting, Woodward writes, "The President told Tenet several times, 'Make sure no one stretches to make our case.'"

What are we to make of that assertion, which seems so self-serving and such an ex post facto thing to get on the record? As is his style, Woodward doesn't let the reader know who his source is for this bit of dialogue. But it certainly is in Bush's interest to have Card, Rice, and Bush himself spoonfeed the great investigative reporter.

Other instances like this include, just a page later, a private conversation between Bush and Rice. Here the only possible two direct sources are the characters themselves.

Woodward presents the conversation:

"'What do you think?'" the President asked Rice. 'Should we do this?' He meant war. He had never before pressed for her answer.

"'Yes,' she said. 'Because it isn't American credibility on the line, it is the credibility of everybody that this gangster can yet again beat the system.... To let this threat in this part of the world play volleyball with the international community this way will come back to haunt us someday. That is the reason to do it.'"

Come on!

Woodward also makes Bush out to be an unwitting warrior in two other ways.

First, he subscribes to the theory that Bush, by merely asking Rumsfeld to draw up plans for war against Iraq, set in motion a train of events that led inexorably to war. "What he perhaps had not realized was that war plans and the process of war planning become policy by their own momentum," he writes. Again, a more plausible explanation is that Bush always was intent on war.

Second, he plays up Cheney as the power behind the throne. He shows that Cheney, even before Bush was inaugurated, demanded options for dealing with Iraq. "Topic A should be Iraq," Woodward writes of Cheney's priorities. "Cheney had been Secretary of Defense during George H. W. Bush's Presidency, which included the 1991 Gulf War, and he harbored a deep sense of unfinished business about Iraq."

At every turn, Cheney pushed the war option. "On the long walk-up to war in Iraq, Dick Cheney was a powerful, steamrolling force," Woodward writes. ("Saddam has reconstituted nuclear weapons," Cheney said on Meet the Press just days before the war, a quotation that somehow Woodward neglected to include.)

Now while it's true that Cheney makes Machiavelli look like Mickey Mouse, Bush did not always twitch when the Vice President pulled a string. Cheney, for instance, begged Bush not to go to the U.N. Security Council, but Bush chose to do so anyway.

Bush had his own personal reasons for the war. Woodward quotes him as saying of Saddam, "He tried to kill my dad." Plus, Bush may have wanted to go to Baghdad and finish the job daddy left uncompleted just as much as Cheney wanted to.

To say that the President of the United States was misled into war by an inept CIA chief or a manipulative Vice President or simply by the momentum of war planning is to let Bush off the hook.

Matthew Rothschild is Editor of The Progressive magazine.
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Author:Rothschild, Matthew
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2004
Words:2017
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