Blow by Blow Account

Itamar Rabinovich
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Itamar Rabinovich

"Bush at War" by Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster, 400 pages

On September 21, 2001, ten days after the attack on the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush and the National Security Council discussed the problem of leaks that threatened to ruin the coalition they were trying to assemble before declaring war on the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Journalist and author Bob Woodward quotes the president's response from the protocols of that meeting: "We'll just have to forget about recording some of the most sensitive material," he said. "The hell with history. So what if the historical record isn't complete?"

At the height of a crisis involving Bush, the U.S. government and the whole of the United States, it is not inconceivable that the president would dismiss the importance of the historical record and focus on the challenge itself. But a few months later, when the military offensive in Afghanistan succeeded beyond all expectations - which is how things seemed at the time - and his popularity soared, Bush began to give more thought to how the episode would go down in history and who would be credited as its heroes.

Mulling over these issues led Bush to grant Bob Woodward access to protocols and other classified documents, and to sit with him for hours of interviews in an attempt to shape the public record and win as much credit as possible while the historical event in question - the "war on terror" - was still raging.

Bob Woodward is a remarkable American-Washingtonian institution. In 1972, he was a local reporter, one of many, for the Washington Post. Together with his colleague, Carl Bernstein, he exposed the Watergate scandal, becoming a cultural icon in America and overseas. He was also smart enough not to rest on his laurels; he built other career niches, among them associate editor of the Post and the author of numerous best-sellers.

The recipe for success seems simple: an important event or institution (Watergate, the White House toward the end of the Nixon era, the Supreme Court, the CIA, the Federal Reserve Bank and its chairman, Allan Greenspan, the Pentagon, the Gulf War); quick, efficient data collection; a fluent, readable prose style; and above all - access.

Access means that the individuals involved in the story are prepared to be interviewed, and supply the information and documents. After all, this is Bob Woodward. If you turn down the interview, he will go to your rival or competitor, and that version will win. Success has a dynamic of its own: If the Supreme Court justices and the heads of the CIA, the Pentagon and the Federal Reserve Bank cooperated with Woodward and came out ahead - at least some of the protagonists in Woodward's new book probably said to themselves - then maybe we will, too.

The product is "instant history," with all its pros and cons. The reader gets a slick, exciting, well-written story, almost in real-time, and becomes a kind of accomplice to Woodward as he enters the inner sanctum of the Washington establishment, reads protocols of meetings, picks up snatches of gossip about relations between people at the top, and feels like a participant in historical events.

At the same time, the version served up for public consumption may be tendentious. The book is based on the author's journalistic sources, without the advantages that a professional historian brings to the job: perspective, depth, critical analysis and cross-checking of sources.

The bare bones of the "Bush at War" story are simple enough: Even though the intentions and capabilities of Al- Qaida were known to the Clinton and Bush administrations, the attack on 9/11 took the United States by surprise, leaving it shocked and stuttering. But President Bush recovered relatively quickly. He understood that unless he responded properly, that would be the end of him and his administration. He ordered his national security staff to come up with a bold, effective strategic response.

The effort was impeded by several factors: The difficulty in retaliating on a massive scale against an organization devoid of any real physical infrastructure; the remoteness of Afghanistan; and the clumsiness of American bureaucracies, with the Pentagon at the top of the list. But the president would not let up, and a plan was finally consolidated. The main points were overthrowing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, assassinating Osama bin Ladin and the Al-Qaida ringleaders he was sheltering; and carrying out the mission with the help of the CIA, the U.S. Air Force, a limited number of troops and local allies, primarily the Northern Alliance.

The way things worked out, the United States found itself able to act without a real coalition. In the early planning stages, it was assumed that America would require partners in the Middle East, but it turned out that all it needed was moral support.

Woodward takes this basic story and fleshes it out with sub-narratives, including profiles of key figures on Bush's national security team: Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, CIA director George Tenet, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard B. Myers, and FBI chief Robert S. Mueller.

What President Bush understood was also understood by most of his colleagues who agreed to be interviewed. All the basic gossip about the Bush administration is confirmed and spelled out in fine detail: Powell's rivalry with Cheney and Rumsfeld, after being left out of the inner circle; the tension between the Pentagon, the cumbersome, slow-moving "services" (the army, air force, navy and Marines) and the more flexible CIA. President Bush is given a lot of credit, and emerges from this book looking like a leader - a person who sets goals and hovers over his colleagues and subordinates to insure that his basic strategy is adhered to.

The president invested rather heavily in Woodward, but it earned him some fine dividends. "Bush's leadership style bordered on the harried. He wanted action, solutions," writes Woodward. "Once on a course, he directed his energy at forging on, scarcely looking back, scoffing at - even ridiculing - doubt, and anything less than 100 percent commitment. He seemed to harbor few, if any regrets. His short declarations could seem impulsive."

The link between the "war on terror" and the upcoming war on Saddam Hussein is clearly illuminated in this book. The Pentagon, and especially Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, is portrayed as a major impetus. From the earliest days of the Bush administration, Wolfowitz and his school urged the president to shift the weight of his Middle East policy from the Israeli-Arab peace process to America's unfinished business in the Gulf. After September 11, the Pentagon showered the administration with proposals to include Iraq in an American offensive. It argued that there were no important targets left in Afghanistan to insure the United States a significant and visible victory, whereas Saddam's Iraq fit the bill perfectly. To proponents of this school, Saddam Hussein's connection to terror and future threats to global security was self-evident.

Colin Powell and the State Department felt otherwise, and Woodward documents a number of unpleasant clashes over this issue. Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play a very marginal role in the story. Ariel Sharon's "Munich speech" angered the White House, but it did not change the basic configuration: Warm support for Israel and Sharon in the White House and Pentagon, and a more "balanced" approach in the State Department.

This configuration was very much in evidence, as Woodward shows, when Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in the spring of 2002. In Washington, it was feared that an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would create agitation in the Arab world and harm the war effort in Afghanistan. Powell was asked to fly over to the Middle East to calm things down. The Secretary of State, afraid of failure, was reluctant to go. Personal pressure from the president was needed to get him on the plane.

Once he was there, his colleagues felt he was being too pro-Palestinian. Condoleezza Rice picked up the phone and told him to watch it, while others - Powell thought it was Cheney and the Pentagon - began to leak unfavorable reports about him. Powell went home frustrated, but with his basic image still intact. In a phone call from Jerusalem to his deputy, Richard Armitage, he gave vent to his anger.

"Powell went nuts," writes Woodward. "Everybody wanted to grade papers, he said. No one wanted to step up, face reality! They wanted to be pro-Israel and leave him holding the Palestinian bag by himself. They had sent him out on a nearly impossible mission." Sharp-eyed readers will notice the barb aimed at Condoleezza Rice. Grading papers was what you might expect from a Stanford professor - not an expert in foreign policy and national security.

Quotes of this kind are the backbone of this book. Woodward keeps his promise to the reader, implicit in his accumulated record of achievements. He ushers us into the "holy of holies" of the most important government in the world; he shows us protocols of classified meetings; he even reveals the thoughts of the president. But in the end, we don't know much more than we knew before. We remember lots of "color" and bits of juicy gossip, but the big picture remains the same.

Furthermore, as time goes by, many of the details that jostle for space in this book will cease to interest us. From a journalistic perspective, the protocols of a meeting at the White House on Monday are fascinating to read on Tuesday. A year later, they start to sound banal.

Prof. Itamar Rabinovich was the Israeli ambassador to the United States.