The Reluctant Warrior

The scene will undoubtedly be used in campaign videos when George Bush runs for re-election in 1992. "This will not stand," the president sternly vowed only a few days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. "This will not stand. " Resolute words from a strong leader, sure to move voters and make them relive a famous victory. But at the time, the reaction of the president's chief military adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, was less enthusiastic.

"Uh-oh," said the four-star general to himself as he watched Bush on television that muggy Sunday afternoon in August 1990. According to Bob Woodward's new inside account, "The Commanders," Powell was "stunned"-and plenty irritated. He had not been consulted. There had been no meeting of the National Security Council, no debate. The president was "popping off " without talking to the soldiers who would have to carry out his orders. "To Powell," writes Woodward, "it was almost as if the President had six-shooters in both hands and he was blazing away."

From the outset of the gulf crisis, the Bush administration skillfully presented to the public an image of firmness and unanimity among the president's top advisers. "The Commanders" (excerpts, page 24) offers a more complex, in some ways disturbing, but certainly more realistic picture. Doubt and surprise, tension and suspicion were commonplace among the military's top brass as they scrambled to keep up with their gungho commander in chief. General Powell, it turns out, actually favored a strategy of containing Saddam Hussein with economic sanctions. And his field commander, the now celebrated Gen. "Stormin"' Norman Schwarzkopf, had to be prodded by his superiors to come up with his knockout "left hook" attack against the Iraqi forces hunkered down in Kuwait.

"The Commanders," like Woodward's past narratives of capital intrigue ("The Final Days," "The Brethren...... Veil"), is written in an omniscient style that puts thoughts in the heads of the principal characters while naming nary a source. Yet without question, Woodward's main source was Powell, who spent hundreds of hours with The Washington Post's top investigative reporter for a book intended to portray the inner workings of the Pentagon. Washington was abuzz last week that the JCS chairman would so blatantly defy Bush's oft-stated insistence on secrecy at the top.

In "The Commanders," Powell comes across as politically adept but independentminded, a bit of an outsider among Bush's WASPy advisers, an up-by-his-bootstraps African-American who is at once shrewd and sensitive. A respectful acquaintance of Jesse Jackson's, Powell has not forgotten the racial bias he had to overcome in his own career (page 20). The fact that Powell privately supported sanctions over force just like many Democrats on Capitol Hill - led political insiders to joke that by leaking to Woodward, Powell was launching his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. In fact, Powell would make a formidable "crossover" candidate who could appeal to both whites and blacks. His friends say that he isn't interested in running, at least not yet. Powell has already reupped for a second two-year term as JCS chairman. But no one will be surprised if his speeches range beyond the purely military and his venues include places like New Hampshire and Iowa.

If Bush fears Powell as a political threat, he wasn't showing it last week. The White House greeted the publication of "The Commanders" with a public display of nonchalance. Calling Powell a "team player," Bush dismissed "these little kind of nit-picking analyses" and invoked his bottom line on the book: "The American people will look at it. [But] they're going to rejoice in a clear victory."

Last January, on the eve of the war, the White House put out the word that Bush and his men would not second-guess their generals. Yet "The Commanders" makes clear that the civilians were firmly in charge at every step. Military decisions were sometimes driven by political considerations. When Powell urged Bush to hold off on waging war to let the sanctions work, the president responded, "I don't think there's time politically for that strategy." Woodward does not elaborate, but presumably Bush was worried that Congress and America's allies would lose patience. Politicians would clamor to bring the boys home, and the screws on Iraq would loosen.

During the gulf crisis Powell often had a difficult time figuring out what his civilian masters wanted. When Powell's predecessor as chairman of the JCS, Adm. William Crowe, asked him what Defense Secretary Dick Cheney thought about the idea of sticking with sanctions rather than going to war, Powell could only answer, "Beats me." Powell was confused and unnerved by Bush's sometimes bold, sometimes ambiguous statements about U.S. aims in the gulf. "It seemed to Powell that the military was rolling down a highway, uncertain which off-ramp it was supposed to take," Woodward writes.

On the surface, Powell played the smooth politician, cagily telling listeners what they wanted to hear. Powell never directly confronted Bush with a demand to allow sanctions to work; rather, he presented his desire as an "option" to be considered. But behind the smart salutes, Powell was wary of his commander in chief He was troubled by Bush's 1988 campaign: "the race-baiting Willie Horton television commercial especially bothered him." Powell, who had served as national-security adviser in the Reagan administration, actually turned down the first job he was offered by Bush-to run the CIA. "Bush and Powell had no bond of loyalty," writes Woodward, "and as Powell knew, personal alliances were everything with Bush."

Powell was scornful of the clubby atmosphere at the White House. At National Security Council meetings, the discussion rambled on, punctuated by "jokes, camaraderie, the conviviality of old friends." Rather than trying to bring some order to the process, national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft opted, in Powell's view, to play the role of "First Companion and all-purpose playmate to the President on golf, fishing, and weekend outings." Feeling like a junior officer despite the stars on his shoulder, Powell regarded the cabinet officials as "the big guys." During the gulf crisis he was appalled to see how Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, insinuated himself as a virtual member of Bush's cabinet. To Powell, the loquacious Bandar (whom Woodward describes as an "Arab Gatsby") was a clever manipulator who "blows smoke."

In "The Commanders," the White House is viewed from a distance; it is "across the river," in the jargon of Pentagon officers. Woodward makes little attempt to place the reader in the mind of George Bush. The president was not approached for an interview, in part because Woodward feared that if Bush discovered how much Powell and others had been leaking to the Post reporter, he would order them to shut up. (Indeed, Scowcroft abruptly terminated one interview when Woodward began reading from a topsecret document he had obtained, which contained the minutes of a National Security Council meeting.) The book suffers slightly from its Pentagon tilt; one suspects that the policymaking that led up to the gulf war might seem less helter-skelter if Woodward had been privy to all of Bush's innermost councils.

Viewed from the inside, almost any organization is not a model of clarity and order during a crisis. The fact is that in the end, the Bush administration did pull together. Unlike the Reagan administration, where policy was made by leak and counterleak, Bush's men mostly kept mum during the crisis. When Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Dugan mouthed off about his war plans, he was promptly fired.

The portrait of Bush that does emerge is of an impulsive, almost glandular leader. After ignoring warnings from the intelligence community that Saddam was about to invade Kuwait, the president quickly turned into a hard-line hawk. Bandar noticed that "though Bush's eyes were cool and calm, he seemed to be carrying some inner weight. When Bandar looked more carefully and deeper, the eyes looked scary." By New Year's the president had committed himself to war; the diplomatic activity that followed, like Secretary of State James Baker's trip to Geneva to confer with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz on Jan. 9, was "all exercises," Scowcroft informed Bandar. Secretary Baker, who like Powell favored the containment option, worried to confidants that the White House "was speeding, not thinking through what it was doing."

No one in the inner circle tried very hard to slow the president down. Cheney worried that Bush's rhetoric would provoke Saddam with "some debate team flourish." But Cheney was "afraid of Bush." He warned Crowe that Bush "has a long history of vindictive political actions." Still, Cheney (clearly another major source for Woodward) emerges as the Pentagon's silent iron man, a "Sphinx" to the generals. Crowe was chilled when he watched Cheney relieve Gen. Frederick Woerner of Southern Command because he had "gone native" on Noriega. By "learning the language of monks" (military argot) and "pulsing the system" with back-channel checks, Cheney seized control of the Pentagon back from the uniformed services, who had rolled over Reagan's defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger. While somewhat enigmatic, Cheney may be the book's true hero, able to push his president's war policy on a reluctant military while managing to keep the respect of the generals.

Scowcroft tried at first to be a process-oriented, present-all-the-options national-security adviser. But when Bush cut off his somewhat windy presentations, the former Air Force general saluted and polished up his locker-room banter. Scowcroft is depicted by Woodward as a hawk, someone who coolly regarded war as "an instrument of foreign policy." It was an instrument the Pentagon seemed very reluctant to use in the gulf. Again and again during the late summer and early fall of 1990, Scowcroft felt he had to prod a balky military bureaucracy to get on with making war plans.

The chief foot dragger, according to Woodward's sources, was General Schwarzkopf, the ground commander. In August Stormin' Norman told the president that it would take at least a year to field a force that could drive Iraq out of Kuwait. When the White House demanded to see his invasion plans in October, he was furious and unprepared. The plan he presented - a plunge straight into the Iraqi line-seems almost designed to fail. Cheney, Powell and Army Chief of Staff Carl Vuono all suggested a better idea: an end run to the north, around Saddam's forces in Kuwait.

As the reality of combat came closer, Powell watched with foreboding. To Bush and his circle, war might be nothing more than a tool of policy, but to Powell, it meant young men and women dying in pools of their own blood. On his desk he had taped a message from Thucydides: "Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most." The very idea of a "surgical strike" drove Powell "nutty," writes Woodward. The Vietnam veteran did not believe there was any such thing as a tidy bombing attack.

Beyond the lives of their soldiers, Powell and his chiefs, as well as their civilian boss Cheney, knew how much was at stake in the gulf. After Vietnam and lesser fiascoes like the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran, the military could not afford any more defeats. Cheney was blunt in assessing the risks in a private conversation with Prince Bandar. "If we screw this up," he said, "the military is finished in this society."

The military did not "screw up"; Powell and Schwarzkopf are now national heroes. If Woodward's book shows that they were not exactly Napoleons, it cannot diminish the immensity of their final achievement, the vanquishing of a half-million-man Army at the cost of fewer than 200 American GIs. Of course, if the war had gone badly, "The Commanders" would seem like quite another tale: the story of a president plunging toward disaster, heedlessly dragging his armies over the cliff. This truth is not lost on Bush's men. After getting a copy of the book last week, Cheney made a private phone call to Scowcroft. "If we had lost," the secretary of defense told the national-security adviser, "Boy, would we be in trouble." "The Commanders" is not the last word on the Persian Gulf War; as Woodward himself writes, the book stands somewhere "between journalism and history." But as a telling narrative of leaders in crisis, it deserves to be read by the commanders themselves.

Join the Discussion