War Stories

Sideshow Bob

Why Woodward always misses the point.

Bob Woodward’s new book, Plan of Attack, is like a play in which the most important scenes occur offstage. In a “Note to Readers,” Woodward writes:

The aim of this book is to provide the first detailed, behind-the-scenes account of how and why President George W. Bush, his war council and allies decided to launch a preemptive war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

Yet this is precisely what the book does not provide. Woodward never tells us why Bush decided to go to war. Nor does he pin down just when he made his decision.

His opening anecdote—and, as usual, Woodward furnishes lots of great anecdotes (the book is worth reading for the chuckles alone)—has Bush dramatically taking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld aside, after a National Security Council meeting on Nov. 21, 2001 (“just 72 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks”), and asking him to update the war plan for Iraq.

Yet, 24 pages later, we learn that Rumsfeld “raised with his staff the possibility of going after Iraq as a response” just two hours after the attack. Woodward goes on, “The next day [i.e., 9/12], in the inner circle of Bush’s war cabinet, Rumsfeld asked if the terrorist attacks did not present an ‘opportunity’ to launch against Iraq.” Much later in the book (Page 410), at a dinner celebrating the toppling of Saddam (or at least of his statues), Vice President Dick Cheney tells conservative defense analyst Ken Adelman that “after 9/11 … the president understood what had to be done. He had to do Afghanistan first, sequence the attacks, but after Afghanistan—’soon thereafter’—the president knew he had to do Iraq.”

So what is the significance of this Nov. 21 meeting that Woodward opens up with so breathlessly? Evidence he cites elsewhere indicates that Rumsfeld already had Iraq on the brain—as did, for that matter, Bush. The November meeting does seem to have kicked off a formal review of the war plan. But what prompted Bush to order it? Why was Bush thinking about Iraq in the first place? Why, at this point or any point in the narrative, did he think war was necessary? Woodward never says.

We’re led to understand that Cheney had something to do with it. On Page 4: “On the long walk-up to war in Iraq, Dick Cheney was a powerful, steamrolling force.” On Page 301 (after CIA Director George Tenet makes the case for a link between Iraq and al-Qaida): “Bush finally backed Tenet 100 percent on this issue in the face of Cheney’s pressure.” On Page 391: “[Secretary of State Colin] Powell noted silently that things didn’t really get decided until the president had met with Cheney alone.”

Yet Woodward shows us just one scene where Bush and Cheney meet alone. It takes place on the eve of war, when the CIA has picked up intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s location; Cheney agrees with all the other advisers that it’s worth the gamble to try and kill Saddam in a prewar airstrike. Aside from that, we never see Cheney’s influence at work, never see the president and vice president so much as interact. The “powerful, steamrolling force” scarcely makes an appearance.

The explanation may be that Woodward interviewed Cheney only briefly and got virtually nothing out of him. Woodward expresses his frustration in the book. On Page 419, he writes that, while interviewing Bush, “I said that Cheney had emerged as kind of a Howard Hughes, the reclusive man behind the scenes who would not answer questions.”

Woodward never even explains why Cheney advocated war. He sees Cheney mainly through the eyes of Powell, who clearly thought the vice president was batty on the subject. “Powell detected a kind of fever in Cheney” (Page 175). “Powell thought Cheney had the fever” (Page 292). “Powell, who had seen a fever in Cheney” (Page 416).

As for Cheney’s own view, Woodward draws a blank. “For Cheney, taking care of Saddam was a high necessity” (Page 4). War with Iraq was “a war he deemed necessary. It was the only way” (Page 163). The only way to do what? Woodward never says.

He does mention Cheney’s speech of Aug. 26, 2002, delivered just after Bush agreed with Powell (and Tony Blair), over Cheney’s protest, to take the case against Saddam to the United Nations. This was the speech where Cheney proclaimed that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction and was close to building an A-bomb. Clearly, Cheney meant it as a pre-emptive strike to diminish the chance of the United Nations’ derailing the war. Woodward notes (on Page 164), “Neither Bush nor the CIA had made any assertion comparable to Cheney’s. … Powell was astonished.”

Did Cheney believe what he was saying? Or were WMD just a rationale? Where was he getting his intelligence? Again, Woodward doesn’t go there.

Many reports of the prewar buildup have emphasized the role played by the Office of Special Plans, a small unit that Rumsfeld set up inside the Pentagon to scour raw intelligence, which the CIA had passed over, suggesting Iraqi WMD and a link with al-Qaida. It is also clear that Ahmad Chalabi, the ambitious Iraqi exile whom Rumsfeld and others were grooming to take over postwar Iraq, was feeding hyped-up—in some cases, outright false—intelligence, often directly to Cheney.

Here is what Woodward has to say about these factors, as seen through the eyes of Cheney’s deputy, Lewis “Scooter” Libby:

Much had been made in the press of the so-called Office of Special Plans that Doug Feith had set up in his Pentagon policy shop. Libby thought the fuss ridiculous, created by people who didn’t understand the process. The office was essentially two people who were assigned to read all the sensitive intelligence. … For Christ’s sake, Libby thought, every single day the CIA chose a half-dozen or more intelligence items to give to the president. … One paper from Feith or the Office of Special Plans couldn’t possibly pollute the intelligence process. The other myth, in Libby’s view, was that the Iraqi exile Chalabi had a direct channel to pass intelligence to the Pentagon or to Cheney. All of Chalabi’s information went to the CIA. They could use it or not as they saw fit. (Page 289)

And that’s all there is to it—it’s a myth. Later, on Page 433, Woodward reports that Richard Armitage, Powell’s deputy, heard that “most Iraqis thought Chalabi was a knucklehead. And,” Woodward continues, “though it was denied by others in the administration, Armitage believed that Chalabi had provided hyped WMD intelligence that had made its way to Bush and Cheney before the war.” Though it was denied by others? Can there be any doubt at this point, even among Chalabi’s erstwhile defenders and vehicles, that he was feeding hype to the war beasts?

Feith and Chalabi are crucial parts of any story about how and why Bush went to war. For Woodward to dismiss them in a couple of paragraphs is appalling.

Another influential player who gets curiously short shrift is the deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz. On Page 21, Woodward refers to Wolfowitz as the “intellectual godfather and fiercest advocate for toppling Saddam.” But he says nothing about the basis of Wolfowitz’s ideas or how he advocated them, both during and long before Bush’s presidency. As for his motives, he writes only that Wolfowitz’s “reasons for getting rid of Saddam were: It was necessary and it would be relatively easy.” Again, why did he think it was necessary?

Woodward is weaker still when discussing the war plan. He devotes much space to the back-and-forth between Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. Central Command, especially to Rumsfeld’s persistent pressure for a smaller attack force. But Woodward never explains this debate. He doesn’t so much as describe Rumsfeld’s view that a smaller, lighter Army could still win the war, thanks to a new generation of highly accurate bombs, computerized command-control networks, and greater cooperation between air and ground forces. The phrases “smart bombs” and “Predator drones”—so vital to this war and to the Afghan war before it—scarcely occur. Nor does he mention any of the Pentagon officials who had spent much of the previous decade devising new strategies that exploited this technology—strategies (loosely called “military transformation“) that formed the basis of Rumsfeld’s war plan.

Woodward is the ultimate existential reporter—wondrous at getting inside a moment, indifferent to questions of context or meaning. In J-school parlance, he’s peerless at uncovering who said what, when, and where; but he has never been good on the fifth W—the why. In a review of one of his earlier books, Sidney Blumenthal dubbed Woodward’s style “pointillism without a point.” In a 1989 Playboy interview, Woodward himself admitted that analysis was not his strong suit. Plan of Attack is an alternately entertaining and maddening read—a heap of raw data that future historians will find valuable but not a finished history in itself. We don’t learn enough about the plan or the attack—and almost nothing about the motives of the planners.