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A Failure of Leadership

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 5, 2008; 11:35 AM

It's official now: President Bush is the Keystone Kop-in-chief, disinterestedly overseeing a bunch of deputies who keep bumping into each other and falling down on the job.

Bob Woodward's new book, "The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008," hits the shelves on Monday. Starting on Sunday, The Washington Post, where he is assistant managing editor, will run four days of excerpts. And based on the initial coverage -- which started after Fox News obtained an early copy of the book yesterday -- Woodward's ultimate conclusion is that Bush "too often failed to lead."

That's a far cry from what Woodward wrote in his first two Bush books. "Bush at War" and "Plan of Attack" were paens to the president's brilliant leadership. But 2006's " State of Denial" was all about Bush's refusal to see the true consequences of the war he launched in Iraq. And now there's this.

Woodward, for all his ability to get powerful people to talk to him, has recently served less as an investigative reporter and more as a congealer of Washington's conventional wisdom. When Bush was up in Washington, he was up in Woodward's narratives. And now that he's down, he's down.

The Coverage

Steve Luxenberg writes in The Post: "In a critical epilogue assessing the president's performance as commander-in-chief, Woodward concludes that Bush 'rarely was the voice of realism on the Iraq war' and 'too often failed to lead.' . . .

"The book portrays an administration riven by dissension, either unwilling or slow to confront the deterioration of its strategy in Iraq during the summer and early fall of 2006. Publicly, Bush maintained that U.S. forces were 'winning'; privately, he came to believe that the military's long-term strategy of training Iraq security forces and handing over responsibility to the new Iraqi government was failing. Eventually, Woodward writes, the president lost confidence in the two military commanders overseeing the war at the time: Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then commander of coalition forces in Iraq, and Gen. John P. Abizaid, then head of U.S. Central Command.

"In October 2006, the book says, Bush asked Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser, to lead a closely guarded review of the Iraq war. That first assessment did not include military participants and proceeded secretly because of White House fears that news coverage of a review might damage Republican chances in the midterm congressional election. . . .

"According to Woodward, the president maintained an odd detachment from the reviews of war policy during this period, turning much of the process over to Hadley. 'Let's cut to the chase,' Bush told Woodward, 'Hadley drove a lot of this.'

"Nor, Woodward reports, did Bush express much urgency for change during the months when sectarian killings and violent attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq began rising, reaching more than 1,400 incidents a week by October 2006 -- an average of more than eight an hour. 'This is nothing that you hurry,' he told Woodward in one of the interviews, when asked if he had given his advisers a firm deadline for recommending a revised war strategy.

"In response to a question about how the White House settled on a troop surge of five brigades after the military leadership in Washington had reluctantly said it could provide two, Bush said: 'Okay, I don't know this. I'm not in these meetings, you'll be happy to hear, because I got other things to do.' . . .

"Meanwhile, Woodward reports that Casey, the president's commanding general in Iraq from 2004 to 2007, came to believe that Bush did not understand the nature of the Iraq war, that the president focused too much on body counts as a measure of progress.

"'Casey had long concluded that one big problem with the war was the president himself,' Woodward writes. 'He later told a colleague in private that he had the impression that Bush reflected the "radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying, 'Kill the bastards! Kill the bastards! And you'll succeed.' " '


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