State of Denial (by Bob Woodward)

Blind Into Baghdad

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, left, watches  as President George W. Bush speaks to members of the press on June 12, 2006. Bush held the meetings  to reassess U.S. military strategy in the war in Iraq.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, left, watches as President George W. Bush speaks to members of the press on June 12, 2006. Bush held the meetings to reassess U.S. military strategy in the war in Iraq. (Evan F. Sisley / Bloomberg News)
Reviewed by Ted Widmer
Sunday, October 8, 2006

STATE OF DENIAL

By Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster. 560 pp. $30

On July 20, 2005, a remote-activated explosive device detonated during a senior staff meeting at the White House. That device, according to Bob Woodward's remarkable new book, was a new form of stealth whoopee cushion, placed strategically under the chair of Karl Rove, senior adviser to the president, and discharged to cacophonous laughter all around. The prank had been planned for a staff meeting on July 7 but was postponed because of the terrorist bombings in London that day. July 20 was deemed a much more propitious day -- all that happened was the release of a new survey of the war placing the total number of Iraqi dead at 25,000.

A week after its hasty release, millions of Americans have heard the stunning accusations leveled in State of Denial . If journalism is the first draft of history, President Bush is going to have a very hard time in the posterity he is now approaching. Woodward's new book, the third in his trilogy on George W. Bush, conveys a great deal of information, none of it good for the president and his team. It gives far more operational detail on Iraq than its predecessor, Plan of Attack . It also goes much further in asserting the author's distaste for the war and the administration's handling of it than anything Woodward has written previously. In fact, it is the angriest book Woodward has written since his first, All the President's Men . Like that masterpiece, State of Denial feels all the more outraged for its measured, nonpartisan tones and relentless reporting. It is nothing less than a watershed.

The book begins in December 2000, with a shaky president-elect searching for the right secretary of defense and giving in to Dick Cheney's suggestion that his old friend Donald Rumsfeld is available. The story continues to very near the present (July 2006), when Woodward conducts the last of his many interviews with Rumsfeld. It gives a full chronicle of the Iraq adventure, including far more than has been previously reported on what our leaders said and did after the apparent victory of March 2003. In so doing, it reveals a government crippled by dysfunction at precisely the wartime moment when leadership was most necessary.

For many years, we have been hearing the stories of both the failures and the successes coming out of the Iraqi desert. It now appears that the failures were more pronounced than we knew and the successes more fabricated. Judging from the alacrity with which nearly everyone on the Bush team has talked to Woodward, it seems the entire enterprise is now foundering under a pessimism completely out of sync with the cheerful optimism of presidential pronouncements.

With whom did Woodward speak? It's hard to find someone he didn't speak with -- itself a sign of creeping executive dysfunction. It's a sort of Noah's Ark in reverse, with every animal leaving the ship. A quick guess list would include Andrew Card, George Tenet, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Jay Garner, David Kay, Prince Bandar bin Sultan and a lot of top military brass, including, to his credit, the book's chief victim, Donald Rumsfeld. But neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney sat for interviews. By freezing out the author, they appear increasingly trapped in a Nixonian bunker -- perhaps why Woodward has returned to his original home in the opposition.

It's not just that so many people talked -- it's how mad they all seem to be at each other. Often the drama unfolds like an episode of "Desperate Housewives." George is mad at Condi. Condi is mad at Don. Don is mad at Colin. Dick is mad at everybody. Andrew Card, the sane presence at the center of all this bickering, gives the perfect quote: "I was frequently the person trying to take sand out of people's underwear, which is a very difficult task if it's not your underwear."

In crisis after crisis, the government simply failed to operate the way it was designed to. Memos failed to circulate or arrived after they became irrelevant. Briefings conveyed only the news that listeners wanted to hear. Controversial information was rarely presented to the president, who rarely asked for it. New proposals were quashed, and policy was stymied by terrible infighting, or worse, indifference. On point after point, the government's performance was over budget, unapologetic and late. In other words, the Bush administration has become the new Amtrak.

No one fares especially well in this retelling. The familiar stereotypes emerge -- Rice as powerless, Cheney as dark and secretive, Bush as blithe. Even Colin Powell, often lionized, fails to assert himself at crucial moments when the secretary of state might have used his prestige to alter the course of history. But Rumsfeld takes the worst of it. For a public that demands heroes and villains, he will appear in the latter role. Part of Woodward admires him and his charisma, intelligence and willingness to take on the Pentagon bureaucracy. Quoting John le Carré on George Smiley, Woodward writes of a man who "had been given, in late age, a chance to return to the rained-out contests of his life and play them after all." But throughout the book, with building intensity, Rumsfeld commits mistakes of the highest order, both strategic and tactical. Woodward calls his micromanaging "almost comic." He overwhelms his staff with short administrative notes (called "snowflakes") that he sends around the Pentagon. He crushes bureaucratic opponents such as the National Security council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then vacillates before important decisions or blames others when they go badly. He cherry-picks intelligence and distributes it unevenly before meetings. He badly misses crucial warnings before 9/11, sends too few troops to Iraq to do the job and blows the chance to train the Iraqi army when that might have saved it.

So many of Rumsfeld's subordinates appear to have talked to Woodward that the book suggests the feeling of a palace revolt. One Pentagon colonel penned a series of haikus to chase his blues away, including what must be the first poem in history to begin with the five-syllable line, "Rumsfeld is a dick." That gnomic sentence may be the book's motto.

But even if Rumsfeld becomes the fall guy, the book is damaging to the president as well. Like Rumsfeld, he is presented as intelligent and charismatic. But he never asks to be challenged or asks for dissenting views. Clearly, Woodward believes that the ultimate responsibility for Iraq rests on the president's desk. In one of many damning passages, Woodward writes, "the whole atmosphere too often resembled a royal court, with Cheney and Rice in attendance, some upbeat stories, exaggerated good news, and a good time had by all."

Long after reading this book, lasting images will remain of an "inexperienced president" with his "legs dancing" under the table during serious briefings, failing to rein in his quarreling deputies and laughing inordinately at inappropriate jokes.

There are many revelations like this, tiny pinpoints of light that illuminate the secret workings of a bureaucracy lumbering toward war. There is also a lot of dish, from the glimpses of George H. W. Bush's great sadness over the recent turn of events to inside stories of how the White House made decisions and who was considered a part of the team. It may not help Sen. Joseph Lieberman's quixotic campaign to learn that he was seriously considered to be either secretary of defense or secretary of homeland security in the second term. More than anything, there are countless examples of ineptitude (for example, Vice President Cheney urging that David Kay's team of weapon-trackers look for evidence of Saddam Hussein's WMD at a precise location that turned out to be in Lebanon). The more we learn about the hard facts of the decision to invade, the more it appears to have rested on faulty information, most of it collected before 1998, flimsy enough to assemble in a child's loose-leaf binder of 15 or 20 pages.

What impresses the reader throughout is the quiet force of Woodward's anger. He is no carping liberal, and no such person would be able to secure the kind of access he has. But slowly, the force of his unemotional condemnation overwhelms the reader. One senses, though he never says so, that he is arguing against the White House and the secretary of defense on behalf of one of their most loyal constituencies: the men and women of the U.S. military. But it's also personal to Woodward, more so than in recent books. He does not simply quote Rumsfeld -- he remembers a remark from "a dinner party at my house a dozen years after he had left the Pentagon the first time." These are old friendships that are sundering, rawly, before the klieg lights of his glare.

If overfamiliarity weakened some of his earlier books, here it is a strength. One of the book's arresting observations is how audible the echo of Vietnam has become -- a comparison that no one especially wants to make but is increasingly hard to avoid. If Iraq is slowly Vietnamizing, one reason must be that so many of the original players are still on stage. And that, too, adds to the nostalgic feeling of this book. We often forget how intricately connected the Watergate scandal was to the parallel efforts by the Nixon administration to tamp down dissent about the war, muzzle critics both inside and outside the administration, and prevent the full history of the war from being told. Rumsfeld and Cheney, of course, were in the White House on the day the helicopters removed the last stragglers from the roof of the embassy compound in Saigon. Henry Kissinger makes a lengthy cameo appearance as a maven of deep influence in the Bush White House, blindly repeating the mantra "victory" without ever quite defining it. Wise men are summoned for meetings that adjourn with no results. Body counts are cited as indices of progress. Stephen Hadley, now Bush's national security adviser, wonders about ways that we might be able to retreat quietly and declare victory. It's déjà vu all over again.

Near the beginning of his tenure, President Bush said, "time is our ally at the beginning of the administration. It will at some point turn against me." Abraham Lincoln, whose name graces the aircraft carrier where President Bush declared victory in Iraq, once wrote, "We cannot escape history." That remains true, even for presidents. Soon the full story of the Iraq War will be told by historians, who will be swayed less by the heat of the moment and adhere instead to the simple tally sheet of promises made and kept. They will not be swayed by ABC television scripts, or executive privilege or lofty claims that were once made but, like snowflakes, melted upon human contact. This book, heavy in every sense, will be at the top of their shelves as they proceed to the altar of judgment. ยท

Ted Widmer is the director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He was director of speechwriting at the National Security Council between 1997 and 2000.


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