THE WAR WITHIN
A Secret White House History 2006–2008
By Bob Woodward
The Bob Woodward rollout is always strictly scripted. His books are “held back,” meaning that no advance copies are available for reviewers and that pain-of-death secrecy vows are extracted from book review editors. His “bombshells,” those fly-on-the-wall details from inside the power dome and classified memos impossible to obtain (for all except Woodward), are disclosed in multipart, front-page articles in The Washington Post, where for decades the author was an assistant managing editor. (He is now an associate editor.) Then there is the bump from exclusive interviews on “60 Minutes” followed by more televised amplification, an éclat that almost always results in a No. 1 best seller.
This time, with the arrival of “The War Within,” the final volume in his four-part Bush oeuvre, the script is the same, but the headlines mask what is really newsworthy about the book. The reported bombshells — that the Bush administration has secretly monitored nearly every move and word of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and that American military and intelligence officials have used top-secret spying methods to zap foreign terrorists in Iraq — are hardly shocking. And this final narrative, which glacially explores the nearly three-year process by which President Bush and his counselors came to the epiphany that they needed a new strategy for the spiraling violence in Iraq, is far less gripping than any of the previous Woodward books on Bush.
What is most consequential about “The War Within” is the evolutionary shift it marks for the author. Woodward is famous for his flat, just-the-facts-ma’am style, if one can call it that. It is the old-fashioned newspaperman’s credo of show, don’t tell. He rarely pauses in his narratives to synthesize or analyze, let alone to judge his powerful subjects, especially those who have been his sources. He has only one angle, the close-up. The striking lack of contextual analysis in all his books about presidents going back to Richard Nixon has angered some readers and critics, most famously Joan Didion, who in an appraisal of six Woodward volumes (from the 1980s and ’90s) wrote, “These are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”
In contrast to his other Bush volumes, “The War Within” does provide interstitial analysis and judgments throughout. It also renders an extremely harsh final appraisal of President Bush. In a stinging epilogue, Woodward concludes: “For years, time and again, President Bush has displayed impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions. The result has too often been impulsiveness and carelessness and, perhaps most troubling, a delayed reaction to realities and advice that run counter to his gut.”
SOME will deem this judgment obvious and long overdue. They will also come away hungry if they expect Woodward to grapple with the central question surrounding the Iraq war: whether it was launched and fought with just cause. Still, Woodward has traveled far since the publication of his first two volumes; in both he viewed events through an overly heroic prism in the aftermath of 9/11. In his third volume, “State of Denial,” the author took a mulligan. Writing as the insurgency in Iraq was spinning out of control, he rewound the story back to the beginning and offered a much tougher account of Bush’s war policies and their executors.
In “The War Within,” more judgmental still, President Bush shrinks in stature as the narrator’s presence grows. Cynics will say that Woodward waited until the last book to fully criticize the president and his closest advisers because he no longer needs access to them.
Certainly, Woodward’s conclusions about President Bush’s certitude, intolerance of dissent and poor management of Iraq policy, including the legal overreaching of his antiterror campaign, have been explored more deeply in earlier fine books by Thomas Ricks, Michael Gordon, Ron Suskind, Robert Draper, George Packer and Jane Mayer, among others. But, on balance, it is impossible not to be impressed by Woodward’s reporting, which provides a vivid week-by-week chronology, from the post-9/11 attack on Afghanistan to the Iraq surge, of how the president’s war policy unspooled and of its consequences. His unadorned factual accounts have supplied many other authors and reporters with an invaluable record of what happened and what was said at pivotal junctures during this presidency.
In fact, some of the defining details of the Bush administration’s missteps have come directly from Woodward. There is former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule (“You break it, you own it”); the former director of central intelligence George Tenet’s infamous “slam dunk” description of the faulty case on Iraq’s W.M.D. programs; Vice President Dick Cheney and Powell going after each other in a blistering argument over Iraq policy; Senator Chuck Hagel telling Bush he has gone too deep into the bunker; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s face sinking when the retired Army general Jack Keane presents him with irrefutable evidence that more troops are needed if security is ever to be attained in Iraq. In the new book, there is a remarkable scene that captures it all, as an obtuse President Bush demands that the words “victory,” “win” and “success” be restored to a speech given when the violence in Iraq is spiking. More than mere anecdotal detail, this is the memorable stuff of history.
And with a White House as secretive as this one, where few of the most important participants are likely to write honestly or insightfully anytime soon (at least if Tenet’s recent memoir is any indication), there is immense value in the Woodward quartet. The fine detail is wonderfully illuminating, and cumulatively these books may be the best record we will ever get of the events they cover.
It isn’t fair to take any author to task for not writing the books that others would have preferred him to write. In Woodward’s case, he is nonideological, so his books bitterly disappoint the cable shouters, left and right. In any case, contemporaneous reporting seldom, if ever, can deliver the brilliant texture of, say, Robert Caro’s three volumes (with another in the works) on Lyndon Johnson, unmatched in their scrupulous combination of documentation and interviews, which together reflect the wisdom of passing time. As the protagonist in Woodward’s massive narrative, George W. Bush does not evolve or deepen from book to book, as Franklin D. Roosevelt does in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s cycle on the New Deal. But Woodward does capture the essence of his subject. With his optimistic bromides and certainty, Bush emerges as a president at once consequential and shallow, physically aged but intellectually and psychologically untouched. “In some ways,” Woodward observes, “President Bush has changed very little since my first interview with him on Dec. 20, 2001.” What is surprising when you read the four books in sequence, as I did this spring and summer, is that despite Woodward’s neutral approach, all the failings of the president and his cabinet are plainly visible, especially in the case of the central character, Bush. The books offer a definitive portrait of him even if, in real time, Woodward sometimes seems unaware of what he has.
Indeed, Woodward’s evolving consciousness furnishes the true drama of these books. There is damning material in all four volumes, but in the first two, Woodward was unable or unwilling to fully acknowledge this. As the war turned sour and Bush’s flaws overwhelmed his strengths, Woodward began to reassess both Bush and his own earlier views. He ends by providing readers not just the material to draw their own judgments but a harsh judgment of Bush himself. In so doing, he has stepped much closer to the role of biographer, not just stenographer.
“Bush at War,” the first book, published in 2002, was justifiably criticized at the time for being glossy and credulous. The accusation holds today. The reader flinches at some junctures, as when, before beginning the war in Afghanistan, Bush asks if humanitarian aid can be airlifted there. “For Bush, it was fundamental to what he sees as the moral mission of the United States,” Woodward faithfully writes. At another point, Woodward transcribes, rather than analyzes, the Bush worldview: “His vision clearly includes an ambitious reordering of the world through pre-emptive and, if necessary, unilateral action to reduce suffering and bring peace.” Yet even in this first book Woodward gives a clear foreshadowing of the most fatal failing of the White House. “Bush’s leadership style bordered on the hurried,” he writes. “He wanted actions, solutions. Once on a course, he directed his energy at forging on, rarely looking back, scoffing at — even ridiculing — doubt and anything less than 100 percent commitment.”
In the second book, “Plan of Attack,” about the decision to go to war in Iraq, President Bush becomes even more dismissive of advisers who issue pleas of caution but fear being banished for disloyalty. The full consequences of the dead certainty inside the White House come fully into focus in “State of Denial,” with its account of the chaos that Iraq became in the three years after the war began. Now, in this concluding volume, Woodward finally shows the full “Kabuki” of generals knowing they are losing but telling Bush he is beloved on the streets of Iraq. Too slowly, the president and his team accept that a new strategy with higher troop levels is needed to calm the storm.
Read together, the four Bush volumes trace a strange arc, with the third and fourth acts seeming to belong to a different play. In three of them, the most valuable synthesis of the material is tacked on as epilogues that all but scream, “My editor made me do it.” (Perhaps Woodward should follow the example of Francis Ford Coppola, who restitched his “Godfather” sagas into a single movie.) Throughout, Woodward’s writing style can be so clunky that it is unintentionally comic, as in this beginning for a chapter in which Iraq’s violence verges on Hobbesian anarchy: “Condi Rice’s worries were escalating.”
These books offer a chilling lesson in how not to lead. They also describe the tragic pattern of a president who operates impulsively, guided solely by his instincts, abetted but ill-served by advisers who fail in the crucial task of speaking truth to power. Even in “Bush at War,” the book most favorable to the White House, President Bush’s leadership mode combines grandiosity (“We’re going to rout out terror wherever it may exist”) and bluster (“We’re going to find out who did this,” Bush tells Cheney, “and we’re going to kick their asses”). His bottom line, as expressed to Woodward in two interviews, is: “A president has got to be the calcium in the backbone.”
Thus, he resists any suggestion that more time is needed to hit back at the terrorists after 9/11. When former Senator Thomas Daschle reminds the president that war is a powerful word and Cofer Black of the C.I.A. warns that the fighting in Afghanistan will be neither bloodless nor easy, the president counters: “That’s war. That’s what we’re here to win.” In his interviews with Woodward, the president constantly refers to his “instincts” and gut reactions. From the beginning the author senses danger in a leader whose “instincts are almost his second religion.”
But Bush doesn’t listen only to his inner voice. He also receives a powerful early lesson from Karl Rove: history always goes to the victor, whatever mistakes may be committed along the way. And so, in the subsequent three books, Bush is obsessed with being able to claim a win in Iraq.
In “Plan of Attack,” the author’s doubts grow. When Bush tells him that “freedom is God’s gift to everybody in the world. . . . I believe we have a duty to free people,” Woodward, in a rare interpolation, asks whether such a conviction might seem “dangerously paternalistic.” “Those who become free appreciate the zeal” is the president’s retort.
So too, in the early deliberations over Iraq, George Tenet realizes that with President Bush, “you paid the biggest price by doubting,” which meant, in turn, that “suddenly there seemed to be no penalty for taking risks and making mistakes.” No wonder we arrive later at “slam dunk.”
Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, are among the sources who are let off too lightly. Powell “senses a war fever” emitted by the White House and requests an audience with the president. But once in his presence, Powell doesn’t really take his full say and fails to toss “his heart on the table.” Then, on the eve of the war, Woodward accepts that it was unthinkable for Powell, despite his reservations, to walk away and not put his “war uniform on.” But what if Powell had publicly broken with the president over the war? Might it have made a difference? It is a question Woodward fails to ask.
(In “The War Within,” Woodward at last confronts the reality that the casus belli had been discredited: “No W.M.D. had been found, many saw the war as a catastrophe and Powell’s reputation was irretrievably linked to it, forever damaged.” And he quotes James A. Baker III, the principal voice of the Iraq Study Group, who says that Powell might have been the one person who could have prevented the war.)
In “Plan of Attack” Woodward acknowledges an error of his own: he admits he should have pushed The Washington Post to publish a front-page article about the flimsiness of the intelligence on W.M.D. I was Washington bureau chief for The Times while this was happening, and I failed to push hard enough for an almost identical, skeptical article, written by James Risen. This was a period when there were too many credulous accounts of the administration’s claims about Iraq’s W.M.D. (including some published in The Times and The Post). Woodward, with whom I had a few professional encounters (being on panels and such) during my 20 years as a reporter and editor in Washington, does not provide as full a story of the administration’s W.M.D. campaign as do two other excellent books, Frank Rich’s “Greatest Story Ever Sold” and Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s “Hubris.”
In “State of Denial,” Woodward, no longer the passive observer of events, charts the period during the insurgency when the obdurate optimism of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld became a refusal to confront reality. Woodward challenges Rumsfeld on the rising number of attacks in Iraq and is left “speechless” when Rumsfeld likens the situation to a bowl of fruit. Today this book may be better remembered for the fart jokes with which Bush and Rove amuse themselves, or for the disclosure that the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, and the first lady, Laura Bush, wanted the president to dump Rumsfeld. But its most powerful pages relate the dawning realization by the president’s men that “Bush was in denial about Iraq.”
The fact that Woodward was unable to interview Bush for his third book may have liberated him to reach sharper conclusions, though again the result is marred by Woodward’s cozy relationships with some sources. Too many of the descriptions of Bush come from Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, a longtime Woodward source who may be more self-serving than reliable.
IN “The War Within,” Bush remains inured to harsh truths. Gen. George Casey concludes that the principal problem with Iraq “is the president himself,” a perception that informs the narrative as it records years of dithering during which the president stubbornly refuses to accept, even as the evidence mounts, that a military strategy based on Rumsfeld’s lean troop levels and the lack of a viable post-invasion plan make the “victory” he demands thoroughly unachievable. And the White House’s insistence on loyalty and optimism inhibits even the few realists left on the team, like the National Security Council aide Meghan L. O’Sullivan and the State Department deputy Philip Zelikow. O’Sullivan finally brings herself to tell Bush that Iraq is “hell,” but Zelikow, who made more than a dozen visits to Iraq and recognized the bleakness of the picture, sheds his pessimism in Bush’s presence. “Perhaps Zelikow didn’t want to be entirely out of step with the optimism or didn’t want to be seen as a naysayer,” Woodward speculates. “Perhaps he could not overcome the old cliché that advisers fold in front of the president.” Zelikow’s boss, Condoleezza Rice, is also complicit. She knows that Bush needs to hear the skeptical, not only the best, case from his military men, but she too softens the reality for the president, first as national security adviser and then as secretary of state. And she doesn’t dare go around Cheney or Rumsfeld to deliver the truth.
In interviews with Woodward, Bush praises Rice’s successor as national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, as the architect of the surge, which has reduced the number of attacks in Baghdad and other parts of the country (helped by a new alliance with some Iraqi tribal leaders and Sunnis). But Woodward, appalled that Bush outsourced a failing war to his national security adviser, faults Hadley for being awe-struck by a president he calls a “visionary.”
Yet he is a visionary whose sight is sometimes cloudy. In his big interviewwith Bush for this last book, Woodward asks the president to pinpoint the moment he decided to change his war policy and approve the surge. Stumped by the question, Bush recommends Woodward consult Hadley — “Maybe Steve knows it.” This is a jaw-dropper quite like the moment in “State of Denial” when Woodward asks Rumsfeld to describe an instance in which Bush revealed himself as a wartime leader and Rumsfeld can’t come up with one.
Woodward himself is most shocked by Bush’s admission that in June 2006 he realized Iraq strategy wasn’t working, but took no positive action to revise it. When Woodward asks him whether he should have sent more troops earlier, Bush responds, “I haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing whether more troops in 2003” would have changed the situation. At the height of the insurgent attacks, Bush demands the impossible: “I want to be able to say we have a plan to punch back,” in order to “fight off the impression that this is not winnable.”
If there is a hero in this sad tale, it is Gen. David Petraeus, the prosecutor of the surge, on whom the author, back in heroizing mode, seems to have a man crush: “At 53, Petraeus remained a slim man with boyish features, famously smart, articulate and motivated.”
But even Petraeus, competent though he is, remains subordinate to the single figure who dominates this four-book narrative. “In the end, one lesson remained,” Woodward concludes, “a lesson played out again and again through the history of American government: of all the forceful personalities pacing the halls of power, of all the obdurate cabinet officers, wily deputies and steely-eyed generals in or out of uniform, of all the voices in the chorus of Congress clamoring to make themselves heard, one person mattered most.”
“The War Within” includes one last epilogue — or apologia. In an effort at self-justification, Woodward points out that the seeds that grew into “State of Denial” and “The War Within” were planted and indeed had sprouted in his first two volumes. He makes a plausible case, though it would have been better, for him and for us, if his judgments had been woven into the original texts. Even now Woodward doesn’t divulge his own view of the war itself, beyond saying the obvious: “The outcome of the Iraq war, now in its sixth year, remains uncertain.”
But Woodward’s own judgment of the war and of Bush doesn’t really matter. In the course of four books he has given readers the conversations and documents we need to reach our own judgments. He has also, however unevenly and imperfectly, supplied enough synthesis and analysis to make that judgment genuinely informed. Sure, these books can be a slog. But they stand as the fullest story yet of the Bush presidency and of the war that is likely to be its most important legacy.