The Woodward War

The White House had more than an inkling of what was coming. This was Bob Woodward's third book about the Bush administration since 9/11, and it was sure to be less friendly than the first two. In scores of interviews over many months, Woodward's questions to senior officials had been more aggressive, more hostile. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed to be a particular target of the veteran Washington Post reporter, who remains, three decades after his Watergate debut, the best excavator of inside stories in the nation's capital. White House aides did recommend that the president and the vice president not grant interviews, but it was obvious that Woodward could, and would, get just about everyone else in positions of authority to talk.

When "State of Denial" arrived at the White House Friday morning, a team of aides went to work deconstructing the 576-page volume. Some of Woodward's revelations, like the scenes of Bush rejecting pleas for more troops in Iraq, the White House tried to dismiss as old news. Woodward's depictions of tensions within Bush's inner circle

were played down or denied. It was not true, White House aides told reporters, that First Lady Laura Bush wanted to see Rumsfeld fired. Harder to slough off was Woodward's account of the role played by former chief of staff Andy Card. The White House made no serious attempt to refute Card's campaign to unseat Rummy. (Card himself quibbled over the word "campaign," telling reporters that the discussions about Rumsfeld's future needed to be seen in a "broader context.") Instead, White House spokesman Tony Snow took a dismissive, this-too-will-pass tone. Woodward's book is like "cotton candy," Snow said. "It kind of melts on contact."

A truer simile might be to a loud musical instrument. An orchestra of books has raised a cacophony of doubts about the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. Coming after Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon's "Cobra II," Tom Ricks's "Fiasco," Ron Suskind's "The One Percent Doctrine," "Hubris" by NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff and The Nation's David Corn, Woodward's "State of Denial" resounded among the administration's growing chorus of critics like a clash of cymbals.

With the midterm elections only five weeks away, Bush and his political minions have been striving mightily to direct the attention of voters away from Iraq and toward the threat of a terrorist attack. But Iraq keeps coming back into the headlines. Before the Woodward book began landing in stores late last week, portions of a National Intelligence Estimate began leaking out, suggesting that the war in Iraq was undermining the war on terror. The leaked portions of the NIE, a document representing a consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, disclosed the somewhat unsurprising conclusion that Iraq was turning into a training ground for terrorists. Bush responded by authorizing the declassification of other portions of the NIE, suggesting that if American forces were to quit Iraq, the problem would only grow worse. But simply "staying the course" in Iraq may not satisfy American voters who can see only darkness at the end of the tunnel.

Democrats as well as a few Republicans will renew their calls for Rumsfeld's head, but it is doubtful that Bush will dump his Defense secretary before the elections. That might be seen as a concession to the "Defeatocrats," as the GOP likes to call the opposition. (Rumsfeld himself had no comment about Woodward's book.) But a senior White House official, operating under the usual cover of anonymity, gave a less than airtight guarantee of Rumsfeld's job security. The president, normally one to rely on his inner circle, has been consulting outsiders. The official did not say which ones, but it is known that Bush speaks on occasion to Henry Kissinger and to his father's former secretary of State, James A. Baker. The counsel of the outsiders, says this official, "so far has been that Rumsfeld should stay. But I can't predict the future."

The Rumsfeld portrayed by Woodward is bullying and petty. Bush himself doesn't come off much better. The president is folksy and jocular, but incurious to the point of cluelessness. His war cabinet is deeply dysfunctional. Condoleezza Rice is almost a pathetic figure, whining to the president that she can't get Rumsfeld to return her calls.

As you read the excerpt that follows, keep in mind some essential context. The administration was not just unlucky. It was almost willfully blind to the risks entailed in invading and occupying a large, traumatized and deeply riven Arab country. Rumsfeld, who pushed aside Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell to take over even the planning for postwar Iraq, wanted a lean and mean force to get in and get out quickly. This was all well and good as long as American forces could turn over the job of running the country to an effective group of local Iraqis. But the planning for this was hamstrung by disputes over the postwar role of Iraqi exiles. When Iraq began to unravel, the administration--with little debate--lurched in the other direction. The White House installed Paul Bremer as a kind of grand pooh-bah over all of Iraq, but Rumsfeld refused to give him the forces he needed for a long occupation.

Woodward writes that when Gen. Jay Garner, the man Bremer replaced in Baghdad, returned to Washington in June 2003, he told Rumsfeld that the United States had made "three terrible decisions." Garner told the Defense secretary that Bremer had seriously blundered by purging the bureaucracy, disbanding the Army and dismissing an interim leadership group. Rumsfeld shrugged off the concerns, according to Woodward. "I don't think there's anything we can do, because we are where we are."

There is always the risk in these instant histories that disgruntled former officials will cover their posteriors for posterity. One of Woodward's more obvious and prominent sources is former CIA director George Tenet. In "State of Denial," Tenet is deeply ambivalent about going to war in Iraq, but it does not appear that he voiced his concerns loudly or well inside the Oval Office. White House spokesmen were not just blowing smoke last week when they cautioned reporters to look for self-serving motivations behind some of the leaks.

Even so, Woodward's book is studded with documents and memos from Bush insiders that paint a much gloomier view of the war than the president's public statements at the time. After the first two, generally positive, volumes in his "Bush at War" series, Woodward (an object of fascination and much jealousy in the press corps) was widely derided for playing stenographer to the president and his hero-worshiping advisers. In "State of Denial," Woodward expresses shock and disbelief in interviews with Rumsfeld at his apparent denials and equivocations. Interviewed by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, Woodward was matter-of-fact about his new, more critical tone. "I found out new things, as is always the case when you replow old ground," Woodward said. "The bulk of them I discovered this year. I wish I'd had some of them for the earlier books, but I didn't."

Woodward's new book, like the other critical treatments of the war, is still an early draft of history. But with each new revelation, with each depiction of the chaotic events inside the White House and Pentagon in the months before and after the invasion of Iraq, the picture of Bush's leadership becomes more refined and more disappointing.