Yes Men

Reviewed by Josiah Bunting III

Sunday, September 14, 2008


A Secret White House History 2006-2008

By Bob Woodward | Simon & Schuster. 487 pp. $32

Intended as a definitive account of the making and execution of strategy for the war in Iraq, Bob Woodward's The War Within has arrived grandly on the national stage: a hardcover first printing of 900,000 copies, excerpts on the front pages of The Washington Post, authorial appearances on network television, denials and clarifications from the White House. In important ways the book recalls David Halberstam's iconic The Best and the Brightest, a vivid chronicle of how another war, even less popular than this one, was made, and by whom.

The War Within's controversial revelations and contentions are numerous. It details, for example, the Bush administration's spying on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his counselors; the intellectual estrangement between the White House and senior U.S. commanders in Iraq from 2003 to early 2007; and the creation of backchannel means of keeping in touch with officers in Iraq, deliberately circumventing the chain of command.

But, mainly, it is a study of what happens when men and women, charged with leading the country in wartime or with counseling those who lead, do not tell each other what they really think. White House advisers are faithless to their responsibilities if they withhold their conclusions and convictions from those they serve, or from their colleagues. It is a toxicity that, by Woodward's account, infected the whole grim process.

Like characters in a grand novel, Woodward's players -- civilian and military advisers, cabinet members, National Security Council staffers, retired officers and so on -- appear, disappear, are talked about in their absence. Of their own lives and the roads they took to their positions we are told precious little. The players define themselves almost entirely in conversations -- usually tensely purposeful, and often, we sense, holding something back. Woodward pre-empts questions about the authenticity of his direct quotations: "The use of dialogue," he writes, "comes from at least one participant, usually more, as well as from written memos or contemporaneous notes."

Here are earnest, ambitious, tired (the pace of work is unremitting and furious) people trying to make sense of the war the country is prosecuting and why their strategy is not working. Many feel constrained from speaking freely by rank and hierarchy. Specialized expertise seems to have trumped the judgment provided by experience and common sense. Few characters are introduced without a mention of their advanced academic degrees, and among the important civilians, almost none has fought in a war. We learn early on that the President mistrusted the counsel he was receiving from Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Baghdad, and that Casey knew that what he was suggesting was not going down well. But there was no engagement between the men, no collaboration through useful contention. Eventually, the White House contrived a soft landing for Casey: He became chief of staff of the Army.

More egregious was the modus operandi of Stephen J. Hadley, the White House national security adviser in Bush's second term. "Hadley didn't believe the NSC should be an arena for contentious and divisive debate," Woodward writes. "He believed his task was to ascertain Bush's wishes, and then bring the secretary of state, secretary of defense, the chief of intelligence and others into line." We also learn that Hadley's deputy, Meghan L. O'Sullivan, in preparing a crucial memorandum on why the war was going badly in the summer of 2006, couched her paper in "tentativeness and deference," using "muted and conditional phrasing" that "reduced its sting." And Woodward quotes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as saying in an interview that summer, "I don't think you'll find that there is a lot of disagreement about the strategy. I think you'll find that most people think we're on the only reasonable course." Woodward notes that Rice and her staff kept up "the appearance that widespread agreement existed on the current strategy," even though, as she acknowledged two years later, "it was pretty clear" that the strategy was "not going to succeed."

The few people who did speak up, in Woodward's account, had retired or been shunted aside. Retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army, bluntly described to Vice President Cheney and senior military colleagues the bankruptcy of the administration's military policy in Iraq, the reasons for its failure and what he thought the White House needed to do to fix the situation.. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell stunned a session of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group with a bravura performance, telling its members exactly why, in his view, the war had gone wrong. (He concluded that Gen. Eric Shinseki was right that the administration had low-balled the number of troops necessary to occupy the country.) But Powell was already out of office, and Woodward comments acidly that his job "had turned out to be a rough ride" because he was "seen as too much his own man, the Reluctant Warrior out of step with the fulsome muscularity of the post-9/11 Bush team." The author also describes a quite horrifying confrontation in which Kenneth Adelman, like Keane a member of the Defense Policy Board and "an outspoken hawk," upbraided his old friend Donald Rumsfeld for a "total lack of accountability" and the "abysmal quality of your decisions."

The legacy of Vietnam apparently was a potent influence on the conduct of the Iraq War. Bush was determined not to repeat his predecessors' tendency to micromanage. He believed he must trust his generals, leaving them leeway to carry out broad assignments, replacing commanders only as a last resort. The president later admitted that in the case of Casey and Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, the strategy they favored -- assuring a fairly quick "ramp down" by "taking their hands off the bicycle seat" so that the Iraqis would have to take over -- was not working. But even that realization, according to Woodward, did not cause rapid change.

The War Within makes its case quietly and persuasively. Woodward states few conclusions directly. He describes the symptoms in detail, but hands off to his readers the burden of diagnosing what went wrong. Moreover, he rarely mentions the heavy costs of misjudgment: Two continents away, 19-year-old Americans were dying while grand strategy was being debated around conference tables in air-conditioned rooms in Washington. Inevitably, many readers will wonder how other presidents would have handled this war; in this, the sixth year of U.S. ground combat in Iraq, accounts of earlier wartime administrations have new resonance. Two spring readily, and uneasily, to my mind. As Doris Kearns Goodwin makes clear in Team of Rivals, Abraham Lincoln presided over a famously contentious wartime cabinet: Outspoken counsel was expected, even demanded. And in his biography of Gen. George C. Marshall, Forrest C. Pogue recounts the advice that Marshall received from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau about how to deal with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "Stand right up and tell him what you think," Morgenthau said. "There are too few people who do it, and he likes it." *

Josiah Bunting III is president of the H.F. Guggenheim Foundation in New York. He is the author of a biography of Ulysses S. Grant and is currently completing a biography of George C. Marshall.

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