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Woodward at War

Way back in 1999, in the halcyon days of the Clinton era, when blowjobs and not blowback still framed the national debate, Will Ferrell played Bob Woodward in Dick, a flick about Dick Nixon. The film begins in the then-present, as Ferrell’s Woodward and Bruce McCulloch’s Carl Bernstein are reunited at long last by a faux-Larry King. The two quickly begin bickering, and as the exchange degenerates into a slap-match, Ferrell squeals: “You smell like… cabbage!”

So maybe it’s a whiff of cabbage Woodward’s new book gives off, the smell of the insider’s petty struggle for primacy. After the fawning hagiography Bush at War (wherein we were assured Bush had taken out the Taliban), and the deceptive evenhandedness of Plan of Attack (wherein we see the plan implemented, and the end of major combat operations), State of Denial, the third book in this putative trilogy, has been heralded as a return to the fold. No less than the New York Times saw it as “a belated mea culpa.” Woodward’s own paper, the Washington Post, declared it “nothing less than a watershed.” Larry King called it a “bombshell.” Most of the reviewers have been polite enough not to mention how Woodward’s shifting perspective neatly mirrors Bush’s poll numbers.

In Bush at War, Woodward became the nation’s foremost embedded journalist, bunkered down with the brass in the Bush administration. The title pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the book. This is George Bush as action hero and the news-novel as blockbuster, right from the moment you reach the “Cast of Characters.” Throughout, Woodward depicts Bush as decisive, asking questions and setting the agenda (Plan of Attack followed suit). In one passage, Woodward goes so far as to segue directly from a conversation about how much Bush bench-presses to a discussion of “contact diplomacy.” Later, when the White House is placed on a list of potential targets of future attacks, Woodward swoons: “Bush was living and working at a designated Ground Zero.” I thought that distinction was reserved for all the volunteers working without air filters.

Although technically the full title of this most recent magnum opus is State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III, the books are not so much a trilogy as three overlapping narratives. Material from Bush at War reappears in both Plan of Attack and State of Denial, and both the later books return to the first days of Bush II’s reign. Reviews of the work often invoke the adage that journalism is “the first draft of history,” yet Woodward has now managed to turn in the second and third drafts as well. And it’s fascinating to watch him reconfigure his raw material, as it provides an object lesson in how the arrangement and juxtaposition of “facts” can shift their meaning.

Woodward introduces Bush’s scorecard obli¬quely early in Bush at War. On September 12th, 2001, Rumsfeld and Powell are already debating whether they should take out Saddam. “Bush made clear it was not the time to resolve the issue… He wanted a ‘realistic scorecard’” that would focus people on the terrorists. He got it: “a list of 22 ‘Most Wanted Terrorists.’” “He slipped the list of names and faces into a drawer, ready at hand, his own personal scorecard for the war.” In the epilogue, the scorecard becomes a sober reminder of how many of them are still at large, but CIA Director George Tenet is still “extremely proud of what the agency had accomplished.” According to Woodward,

Tenet believed he had learned a personal lesson about the price of doubt and inaction… Problems overwhelmed some people, and they would come up with 50 reasons why they were insoluble. Not Bush. Suddenly the CIA had a new ethos–no penalty for taking risks or making mistakes. Bush had given it to them.

Woodward recycles this language in Plan of Attack to explain Tenet’s willingness to ‘take risks’ on slam dunks in Iraq, but he doesn’t get back to the scorecard until late in State of Denial: “Counterinsurgency experts say that body counts offer a false measure of winning… But President Bush loved to keep scorecards.” The “22 Most Wanted” no longer stands for what’s right with Bush’s strategy but what’s wrong.

Depending on which book you’re reading, the first sign that things were FUBAR—Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition—came pretty early on. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage uses the phrase at a contentious National Security Council meeting. The first time Woodward recounts this story (in Bush at War), a CIA request had “not filtered up” to Rumsfeld, whose “frustration boiled over”; throughout the book, Rummy had been valiantly trying to wrestle control over an unwieldy military bureaucracy (an effort Woodward sympathized with). In State of Denial, Rumsfeld’s frustration is solely with being outclassed by the CIA; there’s no mention of the (ostensible) communication failure. Armitage’s comment is now directed strictly at Rumsfeld (and not the CIA), who’s “humiliated.” Woodward elevates this telling into the basis for Rumsfeld’s micro-management of the war on Iraq.

Woodward shifts his allegiances one word at a time. Rumsfeld emerges as the chief villain of State of Denial, but even if he’s necessary to explain the debacle in Iraq, he’s not sufficient. In one of their conversations, Bush told Woodward: “a president has got to be the calcium in the backbone. If I weaken, the whole team weakens. If I’m doubtful, I can assure you there will be a lot of doubt.” This is Woodward’s bottom line in State of Denial: that Bush’s faith-based leadership means he can’t reconsider this disastrous course.

Yet when Woodward first used the quote in Bush at War, he did so to make exactly the opposite point. While following the tortured English of the Torturer-in-Chief is never easy, in the earlier arrangement of the quote, Bush seems to be trying to articulate the need to hear the doubts of his cabinet (he’s then quoted asking Cheney for his). Perhaps Woodward has reinterpreted Bush’s statements over time; perhaps his fears about the president were realized. But these concerns were obvious to the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets before the Iraq War. “Facts” are never neutral; they’re filtered through our prejudices, dependent on context for meaning. The WMD “debate” clearly illustrated this dilemma.

While Plan of Attack portrayed the debate within the administration over how to take on Iraq, it essentially treated both sides as equally legitimate. State of Denial finally takes a side, but treats the failures of the Bush Administration as a problem of management, like an MBA seminar gone horribly wrong. Since Woodward frames the situation as a clash of personalities, the assumptions shared by all involved–about WMD, pre-emptive force, etc.—are never seriously questioned.

Most of us know Richard Armitage—if we know of him at all—as Deputy Secretary of State; to Woodward, he’s just another source. Over three books, Woodward never looks beyond the narrow circle of D.C. insiders who feed him his stories. Woodward thrives on access, and access requires he doesn’t challenge their deluded assumptions. When Woodward writes in Plan of Attack that “the real and best answer was that [Saddam] probably had WMD” (emphasis in original), it’s nearly impossible to tell if he’s speaking for himself or one of his vaguely anonymous sources. As a technique, it shields Woodward from criticism even as it lets him present the Bush Administration’s talking points as facts. This isn’t reporting—it’s stenography.

The real question is: What did Woodward know and when did he know it? David Corn has expertly dissected how the Downing Street Memo and then the Plame Affair exposed the limits of Woodward’s technique, leaving him too tangled in his sources to tell the real story. Whether he’s had information—about the preparations for the Iraq war, or a February 2005 State Department memo declaring Iraq “a failed state”—at moments when it could have shifted the national debate is an extremely difficult question to answer.

Instead, Woodward whispers the discrete revelations of the courtier. Limiting politics to personalities, he serves up villains, most notably Rumsfeld, Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar, and even Henry Kissinger (Bush is noticeably absent throughout much of State of Denial). Even if he makes a good argument for Kissinger’s influence, clearly things were awry long before Henry returned to the scene (and it’s interesting how closely Woodward’s Iraq resembles his Vietnam: Iraq is FUBAR because of the micro-management of the military). As for Bandar, he may have urged an attack on Iraq, but on one of the few other occasions his advice is explicitly stated, it’s to demand in no uncertain terms that Bush settle the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Given that the rest of Woodward’s sources clearly think that throwing Rumsfeld to the wolves is the solution, should we really accept the notion that Rummy is the main problem? That it all comes down to a micro-managing secretary of defense backed by an obstinate commander-in-chief is just not an adequate explanation for a disaster of this scale. Here are just a few of the names which occur only once or twice, if at all, in the nearly 1,300 pages Woodward has spent writing the inside story on the Bush administration’s war: Haliburton, the Project for a New American Century, the Christian Coalition, Bechtel, AIPAC, Blackwater, Focus on the Family, the Office of Special Plans… the list goes on. In short, Woodward’s work offers barely a glimpse of the constellation of interests that the Bush administration serves. There’s no one reason we got into Iraq; there’s a long list for why we’ve stayed. Bob Woodward’s work is on it.


Nicholas Jahr


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2006

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