Readings in the Age of Empire

State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III
Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 2006
558 pp.

“On some of these issues I don’t trust anybody that’s that sure,” Secretary of State Condi Rice allegedly said of the “extremists” on the Iraq war. One wonders why she continues to work for President George W. Bush.

This is merely one of many anecdotes in Bob Woodward’s State of Denial that raise questions about the philosophy, consistency, and competence of an administration that has taken America into a disastrous, unnecessary war.

When George W. Bush was elected, few thought Iraq would become the defining issue of his presidency. After all, his father, President George H.W. Bush, chose not to defenestrate Saddam Hussein even after initiating war to oust Iraq from Kuwait.

The U.S. could have gone into Baghdad, but, explained the elder Bush,

“And then what? Which sergeant, which private, whose life would be at stake in perhaps a fruitless hunt in an urban guerrilla war to find the most-secure dictator in the world? Whose life would be on my hands as the commander-in-chief because I, unilaterally, went beyond the international law, went beyond the stated mission, and said we’re going to show our macho? We’re going into Baghdad. We’re going to be an occupying power – America in an Arab land – with no allies at our side. It would have been disastrous.”

With Hussein contained and constrained, who imagined that the younger Bush would run off on a foolish military joyride?

But he did. And State of Denial is not so much the story of the decision to go to war, about which Woodward previously wrote, but the (mis)management of the war once decided. Although State of Denial is not unique – much has been written on the Iraq war – the book provides the most comprehensive look at internal administration decision-making in prosecuting the war.

Most of the volumes, other than, say, the memoirs of Paul Bremer, Iraq’s U.S. occupation governor, have been penned by liberal journalists and have little good to say about administration policies. At one level, Woodward’s account is no different. However, though this Washington Post editor earned his reputation bringing down Richard Nixon three decades ago, Woodward is no left-wing ideologue: his last book on Bush’s war policies won accolades from the White House, which recommended it to interested Americans.

State of Denial suffers from the usual limitations of Woodward’s work: it is highly dependent upon interviews with leading figures, risking a self-interested “adjustment” of the historical record by such dubious characters as Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The book also is filled with seeming transcripts of detailed conversations, apparently mined from the memories of self-interested participants weeks, months, or even years later.

Nevertheless, some of the parties have confirmed remarks reported by Woodward. The book also offers a picture fully consistent with the reports of others. This eminently readable account helps explain how the U.S. government blundered into the most disastrous policy failure since Vietnam: ideological cluelessness, arrogant incompetence, and pervasive blindness. Administration policy was encapsulated by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Writes Woodward: “‘Their idea of diplomacy,’ Armitage said to Powell once, ‘is to say “Look f*cker, you do what we want."'”

Fighting terrorism has rarely been far from President George W. Bush’s lips since 9/11, but his administration did not begin with that concern. In fact, Woodward provides evidence that the issue was not on the administration’s radar screen before 9/11. In July 2001, CIA Director George Tenet hoped to energize the administration. Reports Woodward:

"For months Tenet had been pressing Rice to set a clear counterterrorism policy, including specific presidential orders called findings that would give the CIA stronger authority to conduct covert action against bin Laden. Perhaps a dramatic appearance – [CIA counterterrorism chief Cofer] Black called it an ‘out of cycle’ session, beyond Tenet’s regular weekly meeting with Rice – would get her attention.

"Tenet had been losing sleep over the recent intelligence he’d seen. There was no conclusive, smoking-gun intelligence, but there was such a huge volume of data that an intelligence officer’s instinct strongly suggested that something was coming. He and Black hoped to convey the depth of their anxiety and get Rice to kick-start the government into immediate action."

Nothing happened. Perhaps Tenet and Black were insufficiently direct: after questioning Woodward’s report, Rice later acknowledged that the meeting took place, but denied any clear-cut warning was given. More likely, President Bush and his aides were no more attuned to the terrorist threat than had been the Clinton administration. The new guys in town might not have been more blameworthy, but they cannot easily offload blame onto the Clinton crowd.

The lack of familiarity with and attention to terrorism may help explain why after 9/11 the issue of terrorism was turned into the issue of Iraq. Many of those around President Bush, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, viewed the 1991 war as leaving substantial unfinished business. The attacks on 9/11 enabled them to bring the president onboard.

Yet enthusiasm for going to war did not translate into competence in going to war. Perhaps the most consistent theme in State of Denial is the stunning dysfunction of the Bush foreign policy apparatus. Woodward places the vast bulk of blame on Rumsfeld. The case against him seems strong – Rumsfeld appears as an arrogant micromanager, one who prefers weak military leaders and works assiduously to keep potential bureaucratic rivals in the dark. Rumsfeld undoubtedly is the victim of what amounts to “payback” time, but then, there appears to be much to pay back. My favorite vignette is Rumsfeld’s refusal to return the phone calls from then-national security adviser Rice or to even provide sufficient briefing materials at meetings for her to have her own copy. That kind of petty behavior encourages people to engage in the modern equivalent of challenging someone to a duel: maliciously gossiping to inquiring journalists.

Also evident throughout Woodward’s book is the consistent determination of administration officials to find the evidence that would support decisions already made and to hear the advice that would reinforce decisions already made. For instance, the administration tasked Chris DeMuth, head of the American Enterprise Institute, to put together a small group to strategize about terrorism. AEI is one of several important think tanks, but it is most notable for being neocon central, the epicenter of activism on behalf of an aggressive, dominant America willing to use its overwhelming military to wreak death and destruction on any nation perceived to be in Washington’s way.

The result was to be expected. DeMuth told Woodward, “We concluded that a confrontation with Saddam was inevitable. He was a gathering threat – the most menacing, active, and unavoidable threat. We agreed that Saddam would have to leave the scene before the problem would be addressed.”

More seriously, the administration’s expected conclusion permeated the intelligence bureaucracy. It was evident in at least mid-2002 to anyone watching the administration that the president was bent on war with Iraq. Indeed, the earliest of the so-called Downing Street memos, which indicated British awareness of the direction of administration policy, date back to March 2002.

The president and his aides may never have directly suggested that anyone manipulate intelligence to come to the conclusion that they desired. But they didn’t have to do so. No promotion-minded official in any agency could have doubted the administration’s intentions. And as Woodward’s book reports, the vice president’s office repeatedly shopped the most dubious tidbits of raw, uncorroborated intelligence and doubtful claims from known liars to other agencies, especially Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Nor were top officials shy about stating their intentions. On Nov. 4, 2002, CIA director Tenet was asked by a top agency employee about administration actions that looked like war, to which Tenet responded: “You bet your ass. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. This president is going to war. Make the plans. We are going.” At this time, administration officials were planning both the invasion and occupation, organizing working groups, and acquiring personnel to implement the policy.

Although top officials knew very early on that they intended to attack Iraq, their amazing bureaucratic incompetence and ideological fixations prevented them from actually doing much planning – or planning with much relevance to the real world. Woodward nicely captures the atmosphere of an administration that drew its assumptions from a fantasy Iraq in which citizens would throw candies and flowers at occupying Americans, public officials would show up to work after their government had been overthrown, police officers would maintain order even after their political masters had been dispersed, unemployed Ba’ath Party members and soldiers would peacefully sit at home, and the rest of the world would rush forward with money and personnel for rebuilding.

Even when Americans were dying in increasing numbers from an increasingly lethal and well-organized resistance, Bush administration officials resisted admitting that they faced an insurgency. They were even more reluctant to admit the obvious fact that Iraq possessed no WMD, and were appalled when Colin Powell had the temerity to acknowledge in February 2004 that knowledge of that fact might have affected the administration’s decision to go to war. Reports Woodward:

"Rice called Powell. She and the president were ‘mad,’ she said. Powell had ‘given the Democrats a remarkable tool.’ His remarks were making headlines around the world. Bush’s public position was that the jury was still out on WMD. So Powell had to go back out in public and retract his remarks, saying five times that the president’s decision to go to war had been ‘right.'”

The naive certitude blinding supposedly tough-minded public officials who were plotting America’s continuing domination of the world would be charming had it not been so costly for the U.S., its allies, and the Iraqis. The arrogant ineptitude might be more excusable had there been no warnings about the cliff over which the administration was about to take America.

But a steady succession of people, ranging from Powell to anonymous Pentagon staffers, move through Woodward’s narrative constantly attempting to wave the reality smelling salts under the president’s nose. For instance, they argued that more troops were required, predicted guerrilla resistance, warned against allowing Iraq to descend into chaos, worried about the appearance of an imperialistic conquest, questioned the reliability of purported intelligence, criticized reliance on exiles such as Ahmed Chalabi, and called attention to the lack of detailed and current information about the Iraqi military, alleged stockpiles of WMD, and other important factors. High-level aides to top officials began writing memos about the growing catastrophe in Iraq and its status as a “failed state.”

Worsening the problem was an endless stream of backbiting and infighting within and among agencies. At the same time, civilians and soldiers, as well as civilians and civilians, didn’t talk to one another. Sometimes doubts about someone’s capabilities – Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith for instance – became so widespread as to generate a sustained, but unsuccessful, campaign to remove them. However, neoconservative true-believers were largely immune from accountability, at least in the administration’s early years.

Standing out in the political jungle described by State of Denial is Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s determination to dominate everything connected with Iraq, Vice President Cheney’s determination to purge anyone thought to harbor doubts about the impending adventure, and President Bush’s determination to ignore any discordant voices that managed to break through the pro-war Greek chorus surrounding him. The problem is not that the president and his chief advisers were ignorant. They were willfully ignorant, unwilling to believe any facts inconsistent with their preconceived notions. And even two years into the occupation, Cheney would still proclaim that the insurgency was in its “last throes,” despite the fact that he never imagined an insurgency in the first place. Woodward reports that Jay Garner, Rumsfeld’s original pick to run the occupation before being replaced by Paul Bremer, said of the president and his chief aides, “they drank the Kool-Aid.”

When reality unfortunately did impinge, it was primarily viewed as a PR problem. The White House was thrilled by the capture of Baghdad but seemed more irritated by the press coverage of the ensuing looting and pillaging than by the events themselves. Reports Woodward, GOP communications specialist Margaret Tutwiler, who had been sent to Iraq, soon “was getting calls from the White House and Pentagon complaining about the pictures of the looting and chaos on television and in the newspapers. Get those pictures off, they said.” Apparently it didn’t occur to administration officials that the better approach would be send more troops to suppress the lawlessness.

When better PR proved to be an elusive target, the administration simply went negative. In late 2005, as the consequences of the president’s many mistakes were becoming more obvious, he and his minions attacked their critics. Writes Woodward: “The other, bigger message in Bush’s speech, however, was that the White House was going to come out swinging at anyone who claimed Bush and Cheney had misled the country before the war. The effect was to equate criticism with undermining the troops.”

Such a tactic defines chutzpah. President Bush put American soldiers into danger based on flawed intelligence that he manipulated for his own political ends. Yet in his view anyone pointing out his misbehavior is a traitor who is putting U.S. troops into danger.

Unfortunately, the air of unreality – or the “state of denial” of the book’s title – persisted as Iraq increasingly became the fulcrum of insurgent warfare, terrorist bombings, and sectarian murder. Woodward’s account suggests that the president, surely one of Condi Rice’s “extremists” who is “that sure,” never did get it. “Bring ’em on,” challenged the remarkably incurious and inflexibly stubborn president. He seemed to believe the clichés that he continued to spout about staying the course, turning the corner, and expecting victory, “cheerleading” even at internal White House meetings, according to Paul Bremer. When Woodward interviewed President Bush in December 2003, the former asked about the lack of WMD, a full seven months after the administration’s claim of “mission accomplished.” But the president resisted mightily admitting what was evident to most other Americans. Writes Woodward: “It had taken five minutes and 18 seconds for Bush simply to acknowledge the fact that we hadn’t found weapons of mass destruction.”

Bush also lamented the failure to find Iraq’s George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. “Where’s John Adams, for crying out loud? He didn’t even have much of a personality," complained Bush. Democracy was ready to march, he seemed to think, if only the right Iraqi politicians could be enlisted. Both Secretary Powell and Deputy Secretary Armitage marveled at Bush’s lack of self-doubt. “Doubt never seeped into the president’s public rhetoric. And as far as Powell’s and Armitage’s experience went, he was the same in private,” writes Woodward. Which gives an ominous meaning to President Bush’s convivial backslap after he sent home Jay Garner after the latter returned from occupation duty in Iraq: “Hey, Jay, you want to do Iran?”

State of Denial is an important book. Part of that is timing: its release before the 2006 election seems to have helped blunt the Bush administration’s attempt to win votes by touting its supposed success in combating terrorism. Longer term, though, the volume will perform an equally important role: helping future critics understand “what went wrong” with U.S. foreign policy, perhaps making it more difficult for a repeat of this administration’s baneful history.

But that is in the future. In the meantime, Americans and Iraqis must live with, and increasingly die because of, thoughtless decisions made by this president and his administration. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani told Margaret Tutwiler shortly after Iraq’s liberation, “we expected more from you Americans.” Surely we Americans should expect more, much more, from our politicians.