If journalists write the first draft of history, all Americans should read Bob Woodward’s Bush at War (2002), Plan of Attack (2004), and State of Denial (2006)—the so-called “Bush at War” series, which describes the decisions made by the 43rd president and his closest advisors in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. There is no doubt that 9/11 was a defining moment for U.S. policy, and Woodward lets us look straight at the things it set in motion from Washington, an exercise that still requires considerable nerve even more than ten years on.
Civic obligation is, of course, not the only reason to read Woodward. First, the books are a great bargain. I picked up all three for less than a dollar. You can read them for free from the library, of course, but I feel it is a bracing thing to have my own copies on hand for reference, as Bush’s wars continue to spin off such an abundance of plagues.
Second, Woodward offers that haunting glimpse into the recent past that reminds us that our personal memories are already connected to a lapidary history. This feeling is what inspired Thomas Mann to write in The Magic Mountain, “Is not the pastness of the past the more profound, the more legendary, the more immediately it falls before the present?” Reading recent history gives us the gripping sense of involvement in great events, of recalling, “I was there when, . . . .”
Third, Woodward admirably repels the criticism that he writes to serve the establishment. Whatever deals Woodward has made with the rich and powerful to get the the access he does, he remains journalistically independent, and as such cannot be called an ally of the power elite. He did blow the lid off Watergate, right? Indeed, Woodward‘s writing seems to me a model of tough, penetrating journalism. After so many decades in the profession, his method is now well known: he identifies the principle figure in the story and offers him first crack at a series of interviews. The offer implies a threat to give others others, often the principle’s rivals, first say if the principle refuses. The principle usually seizes his chance. Thus, in the “Bush at War” series, Woodward delivers the profuse recollections of not just George W. Bush, but also those of Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, George Tenet, Tommy Franks, and a dozen other key players.
Fourth, Woodward is a surprisingly breezy stylist, given his chosen topic of Beltway politics. I never felt I was laboring as I read the 1,100-page series over the course of three weeks.
The main reason to read Woodward, though, is to face the unpleasant fact, as Orwell would put it, of one of the worst strategic decisions ever made by a U.S. president—the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, fatally diluting the focus of the war on terrorism, overcommitting U.S. military power abroad, and igniting an already unstable Middle East in a series of ruinous wars that continue today.
Bush at War tells the story of an unlikely—in fact, barely legally elected—president who came to office with an exceptionally modest agenda of tax breaks and education reform. On foreign policy, Bush was a babe in the woods. When he wanted to bone up on world affairs as a candidate, Bush called in, not a preeminent U.S. panel, but an old family friend from the House of Saud, Prince Bandar. Woodward recalls in telling detail how Bandar walked Bush through everything from the Middle East to Vatican politics to North Korea. It is fair to say that when Bush took office, his worldview was at least in part a Saudi one.
Bush’s worldview would determine the shape of the war on terrorism. The 9/11 attacks called him, he believed, to shed the modesty of his original agenda and fulfill the role of a wartime president. The enduring story of his presidency, Woodward brings out, was prefigured in the leadership style Bush evolved immediately after 9/11.
At the outset of his first term, Bush had surrounded himself with secretaries and staffers who believed military force, when used, should be used decisively. This was one of the pillars of the doctrine attributed to Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Bush’s Secretary of State. When forming the first response to 9/11, virtually all of Bush’s advisors favored large-scale military action over precision attacks on select “nodes” of the al-Qaeda network, a half-measure they associated with the Clinton administration’s failed attempts to get Bin Laden with cruise missiles in the 1990s. So, the size and footprint of the U.S. deployment to Afghanistan would be robust, biasing the U.S. mission from the beginning strongly toward occupation and nation-building rather than a narrower counterterrorism mandate. One of the reasons U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan today is because Bush’s desire not to play “small ball” in 2001 committed us to overambitious war aims from the beginning.
If the invasion of Afghanistan was overambitious, this was perhaps because Bush incorporated overreach directly into his counterterrorism doctrine. The United States, he said in his first speech after 9/11, would “make no distinction between those who planned these attacks and those who harbor them.” Crucially, Woodward reveals, Bush had chosen this fateful phrase, with its vast strategic implications, without consulting his vice president, secretary of state, or secretary of defense. It was a unilateral, in fact personal, commitment to a war that threatened to span the globe.
Bush’s tendency to make policy through speeches became a standard feature of his leadership style, a habit that often left his advisors playing catchup and dissimulating the facts to stay on message. After 9/11, the next time Bush’s rhetoric shaped a major policy decision was in Septembeer 2002, when he and British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a joint press conference on their budding partnership on Iraq war planning. Asked about the timeline for an invasion, Bush demurred but implied the intention to invade was real, based on the unqualified assertion that “Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction.” What the public didn’t know at the time was that the U.S. intelligence community had no idea yet whether Saddam had WMD, and some of Bush‘s key advisors, most notably Secretary of State Powell, were deeply skeptical of the United States’ ability to find out. But there it was on the public record: the president had seized on his casus belli, well ahead of any facts in which to ground it, and he was taking America’s closest ally along into the murk.
Plan of Attack tells the gripping story of Rumsfeld relentlessly driving General Tommy Franks toward an ever faster, leaner war plan for Iraq and of the U.S. intelligence community’s rush to keep up with the political pretexts on which the plan was built. Woodward does an admirably objective job of profiling the Iraq hawks in Bush’s camp, who longed to invade before 9/11, but without indulging in conspiracy theories. In fact, what the American people can discover from Woodward is that Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al., were perfectly open about their dreams of conquest from the first day of Bush’s presidency. There was no “deep state” skullduggery on that question.
Bush was often called a cowboy during his command of the war on terrorism. Woodward notes in several places that the charicature aptly reflected the president’s refusal to walk back any factual claim or commitment to action. (Does anyone remember “Bring it on?”) So it was that Bush’s off-the-cuff remark on Saddam possessing WMD in September 2002 led, step by dreadful step, to Colin Powell’s loyal but meretricious speech to the UN in February 2003, in which the Secretary of State sacrificed his credibility for Bush’s determination to go to war.
Many of us who recall Bush’s unsteady grappling with the English language, even to form simple phrases, might wilt to think that he, of all presidents, made policy through his choice of words. But he was not on his own in this enterprise. One of Woodward’s greatest services in the “Bush at War” series is to illuminate the role played by Bush’s senior speech writer, Michael Gerson, throughout both of Bush’s terms.
A graduate of Bill Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College, Gerson was part of a circle of evangelical Christian advisors and senior officials who habitually joined Bush for prayer meetings and generally put their religious outlook at the service of his policy decisions. (Incidentally, one would have paid many times the cover price of Woodward’s books to hear how Bush’s generals or hardboiled, secular cabinet members coped with all the West Wing’s earnest pieties, but it is not forthcoming. Tommy Franks, a good soldier, could not give an order without embroidering it with several conjugations of “fuck.”)
Bush’s habit of speechifying first and ajusting policy afterward put Gerson the in the driver’s seat much of time. So, although Gerson was “just” a speechwriter, his role of being the first person to put words in the president’s mouth gave him significant power, especially when we recall Bush’s cowboy tendency to stick to his word.
It is hard to say whether Gerson had a finest moment, but certainly some of his phrases proved more fateful than others in shaping Bush’s wars. The Bush doctrine of attacking states that harbor terrorists sprang from Gerson‘s phrasing. So did the Axis of Evil.
In one case, it must be said, Gerson put a momentous lie in the president’s mouth. Speaking at West Point in June 2002, Bush was at pains to argue for expanding the war on terrorism to include an invasion of Iraq. The public would have been familiar with Bush’s main rationale for such an invasion, that Iraq harbored terrorists or „supported“ them by keeping poorly guarded WMD. But perhaps sensing that a new war front called for fresh motivation, Bush (Gerson) raised his rhetoric a notch. “Our nation’s cause has always been larger than our nation’s defense,” he intoned. “We have a great opportunity to extend a just peace by replacing poverty, repression and resentment around the world with hope of a better day.” So, the conquest of Iraq was to be a liberation campaign, not just the elimination of a strategic threat.
The first sentence of Bush’s assertion is true only in a trivial sense: our government is committed, by the consitution, to provide for more than the common defense. It also makes laws, builds roads, etc. But this is not what Bush/Gerson meant when they said our “cause” was larger than self-defense. What they meant was that our actions are sanctified by a mission to the rest of the world, specifically, to spread liberal democratic values. This is one of those propositions whose meaning is apparently so noble and whose rhetoric is so purple that it comes across poorly to point out that it is flatly false. Although we like to think we are a light to the world, that is something we do in our spare time. Our republic’s reason for existing is to achieve a more perfect union within our borders, not to help others breathe freely abroad. Scour the consitution, and you will find no such missionary vision in our blueprint. Survey the founders‘ writings—even those of Thomas Paine, who famoulsy hopped back and forth between France’s revolution and our own—and you will find positive horror at the prospect of foreign entanglements, even in the service of noble ideals.
Apropos of horrors, Bush, Gerson, and Condoleeza Rice, Bush’s first-term National Security Advisor and second-term Secretary of State, apparently shared an evangelical faith in the purifying power of upheaval and collapse—the idea that one can emerge from catastrophic trauma remade and transformed. A born-agian Christian and veteran of addiction recovery, Bush believed the abjection of rock bottom was a necessary prelude to purifying one’s life. Could the personal prove political? Bush thought so. Tragically, though, he was wrong. While the “rock bottom” experience can be a useful construction of events when applied to one’s own misspent youth, as a basis of foreign policy, it seems to guarantee war and calamity.
It is worth recalling just how far Bush was able to take this delusion. In a meeting with a group of Iraqi dissidents in January 2003, Bush posed some impressionistic questions to the Iraqis about post-invasion nation-building but quickly reverted to his role as commander-in-chief. His only job, he told the Iraqis, was to win the war against Saddam. Military victory, he said, was the main thing; it would enable a cascade of political accomplishments, even some that had eluded decades of diplomacy and ordinary politics. With no logical entree whatsoever, Bush told the Iraqis, “I truly believe out of [the coming invasion] will come peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Maybe one year from now we will be toasting victory and talking about the transition to freedom.” Bush would shatter the Middle East and bring forth a region re-born. It is hard not to see his delusion as messianic in scale.
Once Saddam was discovered to have only a handful of WMD, though, Bush’s messianic ideas came in handy for propping up a war whose explicit goal had evaporated. Condoleeza Rice joined Bush‘s chorus on promoting democracy shortly after the Iraq Survey Group reported, in October 2003, it had failed to find stocks of weapons. With anti-U.S. insurgents starting to stream out of Syria into western Iraq around this time, the Bush administration found it useful to play up speculation in the region about Bashar al-Asad’s regime being the next one targeted fro removal.
As the administration shifted war aims from preemptive defense to regional “democratization,” Rice would provide one of the more infelicitous phrases of post-Iraq U.S. foreign policy, when she described the pointless war in 2006 between Israel and Lebanese Hizballah as “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” The other foreign ministers of the world were calling for a stop to the violence, but the Bush administration was advocating for the transformative power of war.
So Washington’s abject failure to foster democracy, or even basic order, in Iraq gave way to an even more delusional goal, which became known as the “Freedom Agenda.” Backed by the implicit threat of a large military presence in the region, the United States now appeared to advocate widespread regime change and direct military confrontation with regional militias.
Woodward’s State of Denial records, among other things, how the Bush administration imrovised its way into a catastropic failure in Iraq, with baleful consequences for the surrounding region. Although the situation in and around Iraq overtaxes the idea of a crying shame—there are too many to go into—the most important sin that Woodward sets down for posterity to contemplate is the horrible insouciance of Bush’s post-invasion decisions compared with the precision and meticulousness of the pre-war planning. After giving its all to break Iraq, the administration openly and consciously took its hands off the steering wheel. (Try to recall, without wrath, Bush’s “comedic” skit about not finding the WMD.) We should recall that the good guy riding off, unencumbered, into the sunset after winning a gunfight is also a part of the cowboy mystique.
The chaotic denouement of Bush‘s Freedom Agenda is, I believe, one of the world’s underreported news stories. It was, after all Bush’s naive, reckless messianism that sparked the intractable violence and instability that still convulses the Middle East today.
The Middle East was no pleasure park before Bush arrived on the scene, but it was a theater of manageable seurity problems, whose human suffering could not be traced to Washington. Today it is a nightmare, and virtually all its fresh evils, from increased terrorism, to the exodus, under etreme duress, of tens of millions of refugees, to the destruction of basic state capacities such as healthcare and education, can be traced to Bush’s buccaneering. If we are to retain any sense of moral responsibility for our country’s actions, we must face the unpleasant fact of owning Bush’s wars. But more importantly, we must bear in mind something Woodward does not clearly draw out. Bush’s wars are most of all their wars—they belong foremost to the people of the Middle east, the bombed, the dead on the beach, the sick, the homeless, the desolate, the outraged, the inheritors of freedom.